Gators spoil SEC clincher on senior day

Florida was hurting.

A loss at Tennessee on Friday made sure the No. 13 Gators didn't win their 19th straight Southeastern Conference volleyball championship.

The players hated to be those players, the ones that ended the streak.

"It was very disappointing," Gators junior hitter Callie Rivers said of the loss to the Vols, their second in a row. "We came in here really motivated. We all decided we were going to play for pride."

They took out their disappointment and frustration on No. 10 Kentucky on Sunday, making sure the Cats had to wait at least one more game to claim a share of the SEC title.

Behind a balanced attack with four players putting up double-figure kills, the Gators dropped UK in four sets (31-29, 25-23, 24-26, 25-21) in front of a rowdy 2,841 at Memorial Coliseum on senior day. Florida also avenged two straight losses to the Cats.

"There are very few moments that I've been more proud of this team at this moment because of what they've been through," Florida Coach Mary Wise said.

The loss was only the third of the season for UK, which was without star senior setter Sarah Rumely for most of the third set and all of the decisive fourth. The reigning SEC Player of the Year was battling a stomach ailment.

UK Coach Craig Skinner said he told his seniors not to define themselves with this loss.

"Those seniors have given so much and it's not about one match, it's about their entire careers," he said. "The wins the seniors have given us have been unbelievable."

There's also a chance at redemption and a shared SEC title with Louisiana State. To do that, UK needs to beat the Lady Vols on Wednesday night.

"I know our team will come out ready to go and there's no other team I'd rather be coaching than this one," Skinner said.

UK was hot out of the gate, jumping on the Gators 12-7 behind a 7-1 run. Florida chipped away at the lead, finally moving ahead for good on a kill by Colleen Ward, who had a team-high 14 kills.

"We needed to respond when we had a lead early in game one and get them on their heels, but we didn't," Skinner said. "They did that to us."

Florida rolled out to an 8-2 lead early in the second game. UK fought back to tie it at 22-22 on a Gators kill error. The Cats went up one point but couldn't close it out. Florida scored the game's final three points to win 25-23.

"It takes special plays at that moment and it takes big-time plays — big-time sets, big-time hits and big-time kills — to win it," Skinner said. "We had a couple of opportunities to capitalize and we didn't and they did in those situations."

The Cats were able to claw back and win the third set 26-24 behind Lauren Rapp's six kills before Florida won out in the fourth behind Lauren Bledsoe's seven kills.

Kristy Jaeckel added 12 kills and Rivers 11 for the Gators. Elyse Cusack recorded a career-best 33 digs, which Wise thought was key.

"We felt that to have any chance against Kentucky, we had to block balls and dig balls," Wise said. "Kentucky's offense is a fast-break offense. They come at you. So I was proud of our ability just to keep balls in play."

Becky Pavan led the Cats with 16 kills. Rapp added 15 and Sarah Mendoza 12 in the loss.