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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For just the second time this season, the University of Tennessee volleyball team (7-8, 2-6 Southeastern Conference) did not have a single player with double digits in kills, as it fell in three games to No. 6 Florida (15-0, 8-0 SEC), 30-27, 30-18, 30-18, Sunday afternoon at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. Junior Milan Clarke paced the Lady Vol offense, recording her highest kill total in nearly a month with nine putaways.
“Even though we made some changes in our lineup to help us offensively and simplified our defense, I really liked the way our players were able to stay organized,” UT head coach Rob Patrick said. “We played with a lot of energy and never quit. We forced Florida to play each point, but, unfortunately, they simply played some of them better than we did.
“I am excited that our players got another opportunity to play against one of the top teams in the nation in an experienced and physical Florida team,” Patrick said. “Each time we face a team like that, we continue to prove to ourselves that we can play at the same level. Our next step is being able to sustain that level of play for longer periods of time.”
Senior Yuliya Stoyanova posted her third-best offensive performance of the season with eight kills, while freshman Nikki Fowler recorded six in the loss. In the first extended setting action of her career, sophomore Jaye Loyd tallied a personal-best 18 assists to lead the team’s offensive attack. On the defensive side of the court, sophomores Chloe Goldman and Kylie Marshall tied for the team-high in digs with nine each, while senior Joselyn Johnson finished the match with a squad-best three blocks.
The Orange and White put up a tremendous fight in the first frame of the contest, but could not close out a solid Florida squad, eventually falling 27-30. The two squads battled to a 15-15 deadlock before the pivotal momentum shift of the game took place. Following a block by Fowler and sophomore Leah Hinkey, the Gators took command, rattling off three consecutive points and scores on eight of the next 10 plays to go ahead 23-18. Tennessee would not relent, however, splitting the following 12 points with UF. Facing five set points, at 24-29, the Lady Vols kept fighting. Back-to-back kills by Stoyanova and a block from Johnson and Stoyanova kept UT alive, but Florida head coach Mary Wise halted the Big Orange streak with a timeout. The tactic worked as Tennessee’s first serve out of the break found the net and gave the game to the Gators. Despite dropping the frame, the Big Orange out-hit UF, .333 to .250, with Clarke leading the way with six kills on 10 swings with just one error for a .500 hitting percentage.
The second set did not go quite as well for the Lady Vols, with Florida claiming the first five points of the game and cruising to a 30-18 victory. After the early push, the Gators used four runs of three points to take a commanding 27-14 lead. UT did not give in though, getting a pair of kills from sophomore Farren Powe, separated by only a Kristina Johnson attack error. A smash down the right-side line by Marci Hampton ended the run, but Stoyanova gave Tennessee another score with a cross-court shot from the outside. That would be as close as it would get, with Lauren Bledsoe ending the frame with consecutive putaways.
A 10-point spree late in the third for Florida marked the beginning of the end for the Big Orange, which dropped the final game, 18-30. Tennessee looked strong early, taking a 4-2 lead after a solo block by Johnson and a combined putback by Johnson and Stoyanova. Unfortunately for fans of the Orange and White, UT would not be able to put together a sustained period of success for the remainder of the set. The Gators quickly regained the lead and never looked back. Up by one at 12-11, UF used three kills and a block to take a five-point advantage. Just four plays later, a kill by Janine Williams sparked the team’s double-digit run. Patrick attempted to stop the streak with a timeout four points in, but Florida just kept rolling, pounding out five kills on the next six plays. Following a service error by Hampton that ended the spree, Hinkey served an ace to move the score to 16-27. The match came to a close with the two squads trading the final five points.
The Big Orange will return to the friendly confines of Stokely Athletics Center for a pair of matches next weekend. Tennessee will first host No. 20 LSU at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 12, before squaring off with Ole Miss at 1:30 p.m. two days later.