The Gators’ hopes of winning the 2022 National Collegiate Athletic Association Volleyball Championship are no more.

The Florida Gators lost to the Pittsburgh Panthers (25-20, 25-21, 17-25, 25-22) Thursday to be eliminated from the NCAA Volleyball Tournament. 

As the match got started, it became clear Florida had a real test in front of it. A serve by Florida sophomore outside hitter Merritt Beason ended with a kill by graduate student right side Courtney Buzzerio.

The Gators evened the score, but Pittsburgh scored two more — Buzzerio and senior middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo each tallied kills — to take back the score. However a 7-2 Florida run put the lower seed on top, 8-5.

Each team registered two-point runs, and a match of runs developed. The Panthers then scored four in a row and regained the lead, 11-10.

The Gators and Panthers went back and forth, and Pitt found itself with a 16-14 lead. Again, Florida scored back-to-back points, and Pitt responded doing the same thing.

Pittsburgh answered with three in a row, but a four-point run by Florida moved it within one, 21-20. The Panthers threw the last punch and ended the set with four straight points to win the first set, 25-20, capped off by a double contact called against freshman setter Alexis Stucky.

Buzzerio — who ended with 19 kills — proved why she is considered a top player in the nation. She found six kills on a .400% hitting percentage.

However, senior outside hitter Marina Markova — who led the team with 15 kills — put up similar numbers for the Gators. She led the team with five kills on a .500% hitting percentage. Beason was just as efficient with four kills.

The teams’ numbers looked similar, but Florida five service errors — Pittsburgh had only one — was detrimental for the team.

The second set started, and Pitt got off to a quick start. It scored four of the first five points. However, the Gators responded promptly with a three-point run to tie the set at four.

Florida continued its momentum on its way to a 8-6 lead, with Beason and Markova both scoring kills. Pitt turned around and stole the Gators’ momentum right back.

It won eight of nine serves to take a five-point, 14-9 lead. The teams continuously exchanged blows as the set moved along.

The Gators found themselves down by five, 23-18, but a Florida run had them within striking distance. Buzzerio’s strike was out, and junior outside hitter Sofia Victoria tallied back-to-back kills to bring her team within two, 23-21.

Graduate student middle blocker Serena Gray sent the ball to the back of the court. It was originally called out, but a review saw the call overturned to give the Panthers a 24-21 lead instead of a tied set.

A block assist by Gray and Buzzerio ended the set, 25-21, to give Pitt a 2-0 match lead. Florida lost two close sets after late runs by Pittsburgh with a third set on deck.

The third set came underway, and Pitt used the same blueprint from the prior set. It started with a 4-1 lead, and Florida fought back to take the lead.

The Gators and Panthers went back and forth and the set was eventually tied at nine. Then, Florida got hot.

It scored three in a row. Pitt got a kill. And Florida went on a four-point run to take a 16-10 lead.

The teams exchanged blows, and at 22-16, the Gators still held a six-point lead. Florida scored three of the last four points, and sophomore middle blocker Gabrielle Essix punched the ball into the ground to give the team the third-set victory, 25-17.

Florida trailed 2-1 and had only been outscored by two points through the first three sets.

For the third set in a row, the Gators were down 4-1 to start the set. And as it had been doing, it climbed back and tied the frame at seven.

Florida and Pittsburgh split the next six points. With the set tied at 10, the Panthers went on a four-point run to take the lead. After kills by Beason, Essix and Markova, the Gators were within two, 15-13.

The teams kept battling, and Florida found itself one point away from being eliminated from the tournament, 24-20. Markova scored two in a row, but a Buzzerio kill ended the Gators’ season.

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