Florida Gators Battle Nebraska Tonight In Kansas City For Volleyball National Championship
By Scott Carter, Florida Gators.com // December 16, 2017
Florida vs Nebraska – 9 p.m. ET on ESPN
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – The Gators got here with a memorable comeback to defeat Southern Cal. They stayed here with an equally impressive gut-check win Thursday night against Stanford.
As usual, Florida’s seniors led the way.
“We’re still playing,” UF head coach Mary Wise said.
Yes, they are. Playing for it all, too.
In another five-set thriller against a powerhouse from the Pac-12, the Gators outlasted seven-time national champion Stanford, 3-2, to advance to Saturday’s national championship against Nebraska. The match featured three distinct phases and enough momentum swings to make those in the NCAA Volleyball-record crowd of 18,374 at the Sprint Center dizzy.
First, Florida won the opening two sets 25-22 and 25-21, creating the possibility of an unexpected sweep against the Cardinal, making their NCAA-record 21st appearance in the Final Four. Those thoughts vanished quickly when Stanford responded to claim the third set, 25-18, and then took the fourth set, 25-18.
At that point, Florida’s bid to advance to the national championship game for the first time in 14 years appeared in serious jeopardy. The Gators started to make way too many attack errors and Stanford’s formidable front line asserted itself behind a match-high 19 kills from outside hitter Merete Lutz.
But once again, the Gators proved why you should never count them out like some did when they fell behind 2-1 at home Saturday against the Trojans in the Elite Eight, and then 9-5 in the fifth set before overtaking USC behind arguably the most resilient senior class in Wise’s 27 seasons leading the program.
The Gators were reminded of why they are here between the fourth and fifth sets when senior Shainah Joseph launched into another one of her inspiring speeches. In short: Joseph told her teammates they were too good to lose and have their season end.
“That’s the grittiness of this team,” sophomore Rachael Kramer said. “It stems from the seniors. Everyone latches onto that and embraces that. Shainah’s talk was so good it almost made me cry.”
— Gators Volleyball (@GatorsVB) December 16, 2017
Still, the Gators had to walk the walk.
Unlike the fourth set, when Stanford jumped to a 10-2 lead, Florida’s senior trio of Joseph, Carli Snyder and Rhamat Alhassan put points on the board early in the decisive fifth frame. Snyder and Joseph each had a kill to start the set, and then Alhassan dropped back-to-back kills for a 4-3 Florida lead. Stanford tied the score 4-all on a kill from Pac-12 Player of the Year Kathryn Plummer.
It was the last tie of the game.
Redshirt freshman Mia Sokolowski put the Gators in front 5-4 with a kill, and another freshman, Paige Hammons, controlled the pace over the next few points with pinpoint serves and a pair of Alhassan blocks as Florida went on a 5-0 run to seize control.
The turn of events happened so fast that when Kramer closed out the 15-10 victory in the fifth set with a kill, she needed a moment to realize what had just happened.
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“It was kind of funny, because Paige and I didn’t know it was game point,” Kramer said. “I had kind of been off the entire night.”
Once again, the Gators found a way, this time regrouping after Stanford dominated the third and fourth sets.
“That’s a hard thing to do,” Cardinal coach Kevin Hambly said.
Florida’s recipe for success included a hodgepodge of flavors.
The Gators rediscovered their serve, getting Stanford’s offense out of system, which allowed Alhassan to be a force from her middle blocker position. They also played spectacular defense down the stretch behind libero Caroline Knop’s four digs in the fifth set and strong passing from setters Allie Monserez (five assists) and Cheyenne Huskey (four assists).
In a rarity, the Gators also did not commit a reception error on Stanford’s serve. Florida finished the match with six aces to none for the Cardinal.
“There is no room to be passive in this tournament,” Snyder said. “It’s a huge credit to the toughness of our team for not giving up on each other. We have found a way to win in those situations.”
The 6-foot-4 Alhassan was literally in the middle of the action all night, finishing with a team-high 17 kills and season-high .517 hitting percentage.
The Gators (30-1) played like a team clearly not ready for their magical season to end. They face Nebraska (31-4) in Saturday’s national championship game, a rematch from an Aug. 26 meeting in Gainesville the Gators won, 3-2, in their second game of the season.
Thursday night’s comeback drifted into the early hours of Friday morning. They didn’t mind the extra work, even as they signed autographs for fans after the demanding match.
“This is the pinnacle of our career,” Alhassan said. “We dreamed to be here. We made it here and want to win.”
A huge storyline heading into Saturday’s title game focuses on Wise, the winningest female coach in Division I history. Wise can become the first female coach to win a national championship with a victory over the Cornhuskers.
She came close one other time, leading the Gators to the national championship game in 2003 only to lose to USC.
Thanks to a group of seniors that won’t say die and a cast of underclassmen around them that gets better each set, anything seems possible Saturday.
“You start the season, you’re all dreaming for that one shot to be playing in that last match,” Wise said. “We get a chance.”
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