VOLLEYBALL: Gators NCAA streak comes to an end

All good things must come to an end, and for the Florida Gators, an NCAA record streak of 145 consecutive conference matches without a loss is now over. The streak was bound to come to an end someday, but even in the wake of a loss to Tennessee at the O'Connell Center Sunday afternoon, Coach Mary Wise saw a silver lining to the black cloud.

"We knew it would have to come to an end sometime," said Wise of the streak, ended by the Vols, in five games (30-21, 23-30, 35-30, 31-29, 15-12). "We knew that when it does come to an end that some team's going to have to play really well. We are confident enough that the team we put on the floor is going to be really good and it took a five game thriller to beat us, and to beat us with a three-year starting lineup (Tennessee) against one that's half freshmen (UF)."

The loss meant the Gators (23-3, 15-1) will share the regular-season Southeastern Conference championship with Tennessee (26-2, 15-1). By virtue of SEC tiebreaker rules, Florida will be the number one seed in the SEC Tournament which begins Friday at the O'Connell Center. The championship was Florida's fourteenth consecutive SEC title.

Senior Day festivities honored Sherri Williams, Michelle Chatman, Lauren Moscovic and Taylor Williams before the match, and Wise felt some of the emotional hangover from the pre-game contributed to Florida's sluggish start. Tennessee dominated game one, 30-21, beating the Gators consistently at the net. Florida came back to win games two and three behind strong hitting and blocking from Williams and Chatman, but in game four, Tennessee played like it was game one all over again, dominating at the net and getting to just about every ball on the back line.

Tennessee jumped out to an 8-3 lead in game four, then extended it to a seven point margin (18-11) which the Vols held until 26-19. That's when Florida began a furious comeback with Chatman energizing the Gators with two kills and a block that pulled Florida within four, 26-22. Tennessee got a sideout, then Florida put together five straight points behind freshman Kisya Killingsworth and Williams to tie at 27. Florida had the serve three times with the score tied, but Tennessee played the big points tough, putting together the final two-point margin to extend the match into the fifth game.

"We've got some experience now winning big points and you have to do that," said Tennessee Coach Rob Patrick. "We're fortunate that we have a lot of people now who have a lot of matches under their belt, players who've been starting two and three years for us since they were freshmen, and they've been in this situation with some good teams, so when we needed big points, we knew what to do."

The emotional and physical energy Florida had to extend to get back to even in game four drained the Gators in game five.

"In game four we spent a ton of energy coming back, perhaps too much energy coming back," said Wise, "because in game five we were gassed."

Tennessee's outstanding blocking was the difference in the match. The Vols finished the five-game ordeal with 27 blocks to Florida's 18.

"Their maturity won the match," said Wise. "Their seasoned veterans played better than our freshmen and they blocked balls. To win championships you have to block balls. The better blocking team is the one that won today."

Florida's freshman-laden lineup (two starters and a third which plays extensively) played well, but just not well enough to win.

"If this loss for these freshmen helps us down the road it will be well worth it," said Wise, noting that the game was played in an almost NCAA tournament atmosphere with a loud 2322 fans in the O'Dome. "This is a match that will help us this year and I think it's really going to help our younger players."

The Gators placed four players in double figures in kills with junior Jane Collymore leading the way with 25 followed by Chatman (16), Williams (12) and freshman Marcie Hampton (11). Junior Rachel Engel had 27 digs to lead that category with freshman Angie McGinnis (18), Collymore (16), Hampton (15) and Moscovic (14) also in double figures. McGinnis had 62 assists while Williams contributed six blocks.

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