Nov. 18, 2006
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Add another to the list of tremendous volleyball matches played between Tennessee and Florida, as Friday night's contest was a thriller. This time, it was the No. 7 Gators who emerged victorious, dropping the Lady Vols in four games, 15-30, 28-30, 31-29, 28-30, in front of the third largest volleyball crowd ever to assemble at Stokely Athletics Center. Florida improves to 25-2 overall and 18-1 in conference play, while UT moves to 18-11 for the season and 9-10 in Southeastern Conference action.
Sophomore Mindy Flynn posted one of the best performances of her young career, leading the team with career highs in both kills and attacks with 18 and 43, respectively. Also reaching double-digits in kills for Tennessee were sophomore Milan Clarke and freshman Leah Hinkey. Clarke finished the match one off of her personal-best with 15 kills, while Hinkey smashed out 11 kills with just three errors in 20 swings for a team-high .400 hitting percentage.
Defensively, it was a pair of Big Orange freshmen leading the squad. Kylie Marshall collected the most digs on the team with 14, but Chloe Goldman was close on her heels with 13 of her own. Goldman's total nearly tripled her previous career high of five, set against Miami University on Aug. 26. Both players also displayed excellent passing skills, as neither had a single reception error in a combined 53 chances. Senior Annie Sadowski was also able to accumulate 10 digs for the 17th time this season, while fellow classmate Sarah Blum inched closer to the school's all-time career blocks record with nine in the match. She needs just 13 more to tie Robin Maine's record of 664.
"This match was played at a `Sweet 16" level,' UT head coach Rob Patrick said. "When teams are able to stay close with Florida, it usually means that Florida is not playing well, but that was not the case tonight. Both teams played some terrific volleyball."
"Our biggest problem all year has been sustaining a high level of play," Patrick said. "Tonight, we finally started to put it together and played one of our best matches in a while."
The Gators charged out of the gate in the opening frame, storming past the Orange and White by a score of 30-15. Tennessee looked tentative early and quickly fell behind 7-3, before it was able to steady itself and use a four-point run to tie the set back up. Florida, however, answered by claiming 17 of the next 21 points to take a commanding 24-11 lead. The frame concluded with the Gators' sixth block of the game, followed by a UT attack error to give Florida the early advantage.
"We were playing scared in the first game," Patrick said. "In the huddle, we talked about being more aggressive and then made a few lineup changes that allowed us to do just that, with Milan and Kylie coming into play outside hitter for us. They both did a wonderful job and provided the spark that we needed to be successful."
Although the Lady Vols opened up the second game with three consecutive attack errors, they trusted their coach's advice and continued to plug away. The aggressive attitude paid off as the Big Orange fought back to bring the set back to a tie at 7-7. Following a combined block by Blum and sophomore Chelsea Noble that kept the score deadlocked at 10, three straight miscues by the Gators put Tennessee on top for the first time in the match. Goldman's second ace of the game and third of her career, extended the team's lead to five at 17-12. UT would match that advantage, its largest of the game, two points later when Flynn put away a kill to make it 18-13. Once again, the Gators were able to hold off the Orange and White surge, clawing their way back to a 22-22 tie. After a Patrick timeout halted Florida's momentum, his squad jumped back out to a two-point lead on consecutive kills by Blum and Flynn. The Gators, however, came flying back and used two runs of three points in the final 12 plays to claim a 30-28 victory and two-game advantage heading into the break.
In the third game, UT fought off three match points to stay alive, winning an extremely close and hard-fought set 31-29. The two teams battled to an 18-18 stalemate before Florida struck the first blow by claiming seven points in a span of 10 plays. With the score at 26-22, consecutive kills by Clarke reawakened the Lady Vol offense and started a scoring spree in which they took four of the next five points to cut the Gator lead to one. With two straight unforced errors, however, Tennessee found itself down to its last chance, as Florida moved ahead 29-26. A pair of Flynn kills and a Marshall putaway kept the Gators from claiming the sweep and tied the game at 29. Following a Gator attack error, Sadowski served an ace to give her team a dramatic win and move the match to a fourth game.
"We have had trouble closing out games this year," Patrick said. "I was extremely proud that we were able pull that one out against a veteran squad like Florida. We did not play perfectly, but we played hard, and good things happen when you play hard."
Another tense set ensued, but Florida was able to squeeze out the victory with a 30-28 win in game four. The Gators pulled away in the middle of the frame, moving it from an 11-all tie to a score of 20-15 in mere moments. The Lady Vols weren't going down without a fight, however, and continued to cut into the lead before a Clarke smash returned to the advantage to the her team, at 25-24. After the two squads traded the next five points, Florida's Amber McCray took control and blasted out kills on three of the final five plays to give her team its' 17th straight win.
"By no means are we happy with this loss, but I am very proud with the effort that we displayed today," Patrick said.
With 806 Lady Vol faithful in the stands, Friday night's attendance stands as the third largest volleyball crowd in the history of Stokely Athletics Center. It is also the highest attendance mark of the season. Fans of the Orange and White who wish to catch a repeat of this match can do so when it is televised on FSN-South at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 19.
The Lady Vols will close out their regular season on Sunday, as they celebrate Senior Day with a 1:30 p.m. contest against Auburn at Stokely Athletics Center. The Big Orange will honor one of the most successful senior classes in UT history, with Blum, Sadowski and Kelsey Fautsch taking part in a pre-game ceremony.