GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida State University volleyball team pushed No. 1 seed Florida to the brink of elimination before losing in five sets, 3-2 (25-20, 22-25, 25-22, 21-25, 15-17), in the second round of the NCAA Championship on Saturday evening at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla.
The Seminoles (22-11) endured some tough-luck breaks in tonight’s contest, especially late in the fifth set. Aside from Penn State defeating the Gators (29-1) early in the season, no team had pushed UF like FSU did tonight. FSU showed its grit in all facets of the game, getting underneath several attacks, blocking a powerful Florida offense and staying efficient with consistent kills throughout.
Jekaterina Stepanova led the Seminoles with 15 kills and 11 digs, while junior Visnja Djurdjevic was tireless tonight with 14 kills and 11 digs. Rachael Morgan was proficient with 12 kills, and Jenna Romanelli added 22 assists. Patricia Figueiredo and Duygu Duzceler excelled once again as the team’s setters, amassing 25 and 22 assists, respectively.
Sareea Freeman gathered five blocks on the evening, while FSU tallied 10 as a unit. FSU recorded a .155 hitting percentage, and Florida finished with a .195 clip.
“We’re certainly proud of our girls coming into this environment and this kind of situation,” head coach Chris Poole said. “I battled Florida for many years when I was at Arkansas, and that’s what I came here to do, to add another team to Florida. I respect the Gators and they’re a winning program, and that’s what we are trying to bring to this university as well. Our girls tonight had a lot of character, fight and heart, and we’re proud of them for that.”
Through the first media timeout, the Seminoles led by a 15-13 score in the first set. There had already been nine ties but just two lead changes through that point, as FSU went into the break winning the last two points on a kill by Neville and an attack error on Kelly Murphy. The Seminoles built an early 9-6 lead on a kill by Morgan, but Florida showed its grit by garnering three consecutive points to tie the match back at 9-9.
FSU extended its lead to 19-14 on a kill by Djurdjevic, which trickled off a Florida front-line player and landed out of bounds. Later, a service error by Cassandra Anderson sailed out of bounds past FSU’s service line to give the Seminoles the first set. Morgan and Djurdjevic combined for nine kills in the opening frame, while Figueiredo added seven assists.
The Seminoles would not give up in set No. 2, even with the top-ranked Gators holding a late 23-19 lead. Stepanova placed a nice kill, and an attack error by Kristy Jaeckel put the deficit at 23-21. However, UF’s final four points of the set were courtesy of Murphy, who ended the frame on a kill after she was previously dug in the same rally.
FSU hung in with the Gators once again in the third set. UF took a 15-12 advantage heading into the break. Although the Seminoles received consecutive points coming out of the timeout on a service error from Callie Rivers and an attack error by Jaeckel, UF rallied for three consecutive points to force an FSU timeout and take an 18-14 lead.
Following that short intermission, FSU stormed right back and used three consecutive attack errors by Rivers to take a 22-20 lead. After Lauren Bledsoe followed with a kill, Stepanova countered with an on-point attack to put FSU ahead 23-21. Later, another kill by Stepanova and an attack error by Murphy gave FSU the third frame at 25-22.
The fourth continued the back and forth trend. UF reached an 11-9 lead on an attack error by FSU, but a service error by Murphy and an attack error by Bledsoe tied the set at 11-11. But the Gators utilized Murphy time and time again, as she recorded three consecutive kills to put UF up 20-15. After a couple of small comebacks by the Seminoles, the Gators forced a fifth set on a block by Rivers, Anderson and Murphy.
The Seminoles took a 7-5 lead after the first break in the fifth set. Freeman aided FSU’s attack with two kills on the slide, and Taylor Wilson subbed in and had three key serves that resulted in kills by Neff, Stepanova and Djurdjevic to take an 11-7 lead.
It was not too long after when a hard-luck call was made that gave Florida a bit of life in the match. FSU appeared to have match point with a 14-11 lead after the Gators were called for hitting the ball four times on their end. After 2-3 minutes of discussion , a replay of the point was enforced, which resulted in a block by UF and a 13-12 score.
Later, a kill by Morgan gave FSU match point at 15-14, but Murphy responded with a kill. Florida then followed with two consecutive kills by Jaeckel to snatch the match from the Seminoles.
Saturday's match brings an end to the careers of Lauren Young, Wilson, Neville and Romanelli. All four student-athletes leave their imprint as being part of one of the greatest four-year stretches in FSU volleyball history, which includes an Elite Eight appearance in 2009 and a second-round appearance this season.
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