No. 2 Florida Gators Host USC Trojans Tonight, Winner Advances To Final Four

By  //  December 9, 2017

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Televised on ESPNU at 6 p.m.

The University of Florida volleyball team is in the NCAA Tournament. Florida is the No. 2 overall seed and dispatched of UCLA on Friday night in the Sweet 16. The Gators dropped the first set before storming back to claim the match, 23-25, 25-17, 25-17, 25-17. (FloridaGators Image)

GAINESVILLE, FLORIDA (Florida Gators) – If you prefer detachment and impartiality in your sports stories go ahead and stop reading. You won’t care for this one.

There is a rooting interest involved, and who knows, maybe some cheering on press row Saturday.

The University of Florida volleyball team is in the NCAA Tournament. Florida is the No. 2 overall seed and dispatched of UCLA on Friday night in the Sweet 16. The Gators dropped the first set before storming back to claim the match, 23-25, 25-17, 25-17, 25-17.

The Gators (28-1) won their 14th consecutive match and face another Pac-12 power from Los Angeles, Southern Cal, on Saturday night at 6. The Trojans advanced by knocking out Minnesota on Friday night in the Gainesville Regional.

This is the third time in four years the Gators have advanced to the Elite Eight, but the first time they have done it at home since 2011. Florida can advance to the Final Four for the first time in 14 years with a win over USC on Saturday.

“Not many teams do that,” Florida head coach Mary Wise said. “They have been in the situation before, with a full understanding of how hard it is to get there, and then how big it is once you are there.”

The Gators did what they have done all season in Friday’s win.

The Bruins won the first set to create some doubt for the more than 3,000 fans who braved cold, rainy conditions and rush-hour traffic for the rare 4 p.m. start at Exactech Arena/O’Connell Center. However, by the time most of the orange-and-blue-clad crowd settled in, the Gators took control.

“We turned it up in the second set and it continued through the end,” senior middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan said.

The senior trio of Carli Snyder (18), Alhassan (10) and Shainah Joseph (10) combined for 38 of Florida’s 51 kills. Setters Cheyenne Huskey (21) and Allie Monserez (20) combined for 41 assists. Libero Caroline Knop, a Southern California native from Pasadena, had a team-high 18 digs.

It was a team effort, one that included just six balls hit out of bounds in 142 total swings. That patience and consistency especially pleased Wise.

“That is getting it done,” she said.

The Gators played like a team on a mission. When they dropped the first set, Wise saw no panic.

Only the same grit and determination she saw in a late-season win at Missouri, in a sweep at Kentucky to avenge the Gators’ only loss, and in the second-round win over Miami after the Hurricanes won a set.

“They are very resilient,” Wise said. “We knew that there was another level they could play.”

This is the point in the story when the cheerleader takes over the keyboard.

Wise is one of the game’s greatest ambassadors. She is a gem to the Gainesville and UF communities for her charity work and professionalism. She has accomplished about everything there is to achieve in the sport except win a national championship.

In her 27th season, Wise is the longest-tenured Gators coach on campus. Her legacy is intact if she wins a title or doesn’t. Nevertheless, what a moment it would be if the Gators can string together a win over the Trojans on Saturday, and then two more in Kansas City next week at the Final Four.

UCLA coach Michael Sealy is on the opposite end of the spectrum. A former star for the UCLA men’s volleyball team, he returned to his alma mater in 2010 to take over the women’s program. The Bruins won the national title in 2011, his second season.

WATCH REPLAY: Introductory Press Conference For Florida Head Coach Dan MullenRelated Story:
WATCH REPLAY: Introductory Press Conference For Florida Head Coach Dan Mullen

Sealy understands how difficult it is.

“I’m telling you, the difference between losing in the second round and winning the whole thing is almost nothing,” Sealy said Friday as his eighth season ended. “There is so much luck involved. Are you going to have that off-night at the wrong time? The year we won, we lost three of our last five matches in the Pac-12.

“I had the luxury of coming in as the nine seed. We lost a bunch of matches coming into the tournament, so there’s no pressure. ‘Wow, we already died, so let’s just go play.’ I’ve never been in a situation being the No. 2 seed and supposed to win. They’re supposed to win. So if she can keep the team focused on their side of the net and do what they do, not worry about the result, it’s easier. Once you get to the Final Four, just flip a coin. It’s tough.”

The Gators have three down, three to go. No one expects it to be easy, certainly not Wise, whose closest call came in 2003 when the Gators advanced to the national championship and lost to – yes, Southern Cal, Saturday’s opponent.

If you have read this far, you must be rooting for Wise and the Gators, too.

If so, she has a request. The Gators could use the same type of support they received Friday.

“It meant that 3,000 people left work early,” Wise said of Friday’s crowd. “We are so appreciative of the crowd that showed up. We are now just asking folks to come back out [Saturday], put the shopping on hold, and join us.”

You heard her. Hope to see you there. After all, a Final Four berth is on the line.

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