Volleyball: Gators Advance to Sweet 16

Consider Kansas State a measuring stick for Coach Mary Wise and her Florida Gators, a team good enough to stretch the Gators to a higher level and tournament toughen them for next week in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament. The tough competition the Wildcats provided Friday night in the second round of the NCAA's was exactly what the Gators needed to prepare them for what's ahead.

In Kansas State, the Gators faced a battle-tested team from the Big 12, one of the real volleyball power conferences in the country and a team perfectly capable of springing an upset. The Wildcats had shown enough in Thursday night's first round match with Florida A&M that Wise knew nothing would come easy for her fourth-ranked Gators.

"Tonight we thought it would be a serving passing battle and could we serve and pass with Kansas State?" she remarked after the Gators took a hard fought, 30-21, 31-29, 30-25 win over the Wildcats. "After the after the display they put on last night [against FAMU] I wasn't sure but they [Gators] more than answered the call."

Answering the call sends Florida, 32-2, into the Omaha Regional for a likely matchup with ninth-seeded Louisville (29-2) of the Big East Conference, which began its first round play in the NCAA Tournament Friday night. Top seeded and number one ranked Nebraska of the Big 12 is expected to make it into that regional as well.

Kansas State used its tried and proven attack by committee approach against the Gators, forcing Florida to defend every inch of the court. Florida got superb defensive performances on the back row from senior libero Rachel Engel (21 digs) and defensive specialist Rhian Davis (9) who combined for 30 digs. Senior All-America Jane Collymore (11) and sophomores Angiel McGinnis (9) and Marcie Hampton (7) helped Florida to its second straight dominating defensive effort. Against Florida Atlantic in the first round, the Gators held the Owls too a .049 hitting percentage. Kansas State hit better (.261) than Florida Atlantic but the Gators played excellent position defense on the back row and got their hands on enough balls at the net to disrupt the Wildcats hitters.

Florida, meanwhile, responded with another outstanding night hitting the ball (.361 team hitting percentage). Sophomore middle blocker Kisya Killingsworth turned in one of her more dominating offensive performances of the season with 19 kills in 31 attempts for a .548 hitting percentage. Collymore had 18 kills (.302) and Hampton had 10 (.259).

Killingsworth's performance was noteworthy because she was hitting over two K-State blockers the entire evening. The 6-3 middle from Deltona consistently elevated higher than the K-State blockers and found open space to kill the ball.

"Those 19 kills that she got … that was against two blockers," said Wise. "It wasn't like Kisya wasn't on their radar."

Killingsworth didn't consider it her best match of the year.

"There were definitely blocks left out there, kills left out there," she said.

For the second straight night, the Gators were extremely efficient on the offensive end. The Gators had only five hitting errors Thursday night and against much better competition Friday, they had only 15. That's the kind of performance that is indicative of a team ready to move on to the next level of competition that they will face in the regional.

"It shows one of the ways we have matured so much as a team and in those errors tonight --- we had 15 hitting errors --- and ten of them were blocked," said Wise. "We can live with that. Kansas State earned those points. We only hit five balls in 133 swings … we only hit five balls out of bounds so we're not giving away points. We only had three service errors and one ball handling error, so we're not giving away points and we can't afford to, we realize that. That's an example that this team understands who we are and what we have to do to win. We compete, we don't give away points and we try to do the right things on the court."

Florida broke open a close first game by outscoring Kansas State 11-5 down the stretch. Collymore had seven of her 18 kills in that first game.

In game two, Florida jumped to a 6-0 lead but Kansas State rallied back to tie the game at 11-11 behind Agata Rezende and Rita Liliom. The match see-sawed back and forth until Florida made a move to break the game open with a mini-run to take a 25-22 lead. Kansas State rallied with four straight points to regain the lead at 26-25 but Florida regained the lead, 27-26.

Tied at 29 on a Rozende kill, the Gators got consecutive kills by Killingsworth to close out the game.

Kansas State made a move to break game three open with three straight kills to take a 24-21 lead but Florida responded with one of its best runs of the season. With Marcie Hampton serving and Collymore and Killingsworth doing the damage on the front line, Florida ran off eight straight points before Rozende got a kill to end the run. Florida followed that up with a Collymore kill to end the match and send the Gators on to the next round.

"A lot of credit goes to Marcie Hampton for that serving run she went on because that was pinpoint accuracy serving really tough balls against some really good passers," said Wise.

Wise said the Gators are well aware that at the next round, the competition will be even tougher and Florida will have to play even better.

"With every win the talent level of the opponent just increases," she said. "Whoever we are to play in that next round will be coming off two wins and we would expect them to be more talented. There are no easy wins left."

Wise said she has a confident team that has the talent to play with the good teams the Gators will face at the next level.

"We have some areas that can be exposed but what this group brings every night is that they are very good about following a game plan," said Wise. "They follow the lead of the seniors about understanding what we need to do to win and then they compete. They compete hard. They'll compete and that gives you a chance to win any night against anybody."

As for confidence, Wise said, "I think this team has earned the right to feel really good about itself, we do some really good things."

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