GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – They immediately raced to the center of their side of the court and collapsed, one upon another late Saturday night at the O'Connell Center. This one was a tension-filled classic, and in the immediate aftermath, the UF volleyball players finally could let their emotions flow.
The Gators were drained both physically and emotionally following a five-set win over traditional rival Florida State. The instant junior outside hitter Kristy Jaeckel scored match point on a kill that deflected off an FSU player and out of bounds – giving the Gators a 3-2 victory and a berth in the Austin Regional -- Florida's celebration erupted.
"We're still alive in the tournament,'' Jaeckel said after what she called the most exciting match of her career.
"Second-round drama … this match lived up to its billing,'' Gators coach Mary Wise said.
Playing as the NCAA Tournament's No.1 overall seed for the first time in school history, the Gators breezed past South Carolina State in Friday night's opener by hardly breaking a sweat, swatting away the Bulldogs in a little over an hour.
Saturday's second-round match proved an entirely different story. It's one that the Gators won't forget anytime soon. By the time the match ended, the Gators were soaked in sweat and thankful to escape with a win.
They trailed 12-7 in the fifth set and faced the brink of elimination, quieting a raucous crowd of 2,431 who turned out to see the nation's No. 1-ranked team at home for the final time this season. But from there, magic started to happen.
"I thought our fans were amazing,'' said senior Callie Rivers, who played her final home match. "Our team feeds off our fans, so it was great to have them behind us the whole way. This might have been the most emotional match I have ever played.''
In the match's final moments, bounces started going the Gators' way, and a key call, too. After trimming FSU's lead to 13-11, it appeared FSU had gone up by three points and was set to serve for match point. One official called a play at the net FSU's way. The other called it Florida's way.
In the end they agreed to disagree, resulting in replaying the point.
"Anything like that is a judgment call from one (official) or the other,'' FSU coach Chris Poole said. "One official thought that she saw one thing, and one thought that she saw another. At that point, we were still up 13-11. It was still our game to lose.''
The Gators saw it as their game to win, seizing the moment.
"As my good friend Steve [Spurrier] would say, 'Maybe the gods were smiling on the Gators,' '' Wise said. "Without instant replay, I think the officials did the right thing by talking with each other, and I think they did the right thing in trying to get it right.''
After the replayed point, Florida scored the next two points to tie the match 13-13. However, FSU once more moved to the brink of snapping a 19-match losing streak to the Gators on a kill by Jekaterina Stepanova.
The Seminoles failed to close the deal, and Jaeckel's kill tied the match 14-all. After FSU regained a 15-14 lead, the Gators scored the match's final three points on a kill by Kelly Murphy and two kills by Jaeckel.
The Gators' 24th consecutive win was perhaps their toughest of the season and certainly the most rewarding with what was at stake. They next face Purdue – Wise's alma mater – on Friday in the Austin Regional.
"It would have been pretty bittersweet to have our season end with a loss to Florida State,'' Murphy said. "We definitely feel very grateful that we get a chance to play again. I think we're going to take that and show, 'That's how hard you are going to have to work to get to the end.'
"So now we know what it's going to take.''
Poole, who coached against the Gators regularly during his decade as head coach at Arkansas, sees a Florida team unlike some of the others he has encountered over the years. Florida has been the dominant SEC program since Wise arrived 20 years ago, but the program remains in quest of its first national title.
Some people see this year's team as one that could grab that elusive title.
"They're playing with a lot of confidence,'' Poole said. "There are not a lot of weaknesses there.''
Wise left the O-Dome Saturday thankful the Gators still have at least one match left.
"We made some uncharacteristic unforced errors,'' Wise said. "We know that to make a run in this tournament, you've got to be healthy, you've got to have some pretty good talent, and once in a while along the way you've got to catch a break.
"I think we caught a break tonight. We feel very fortunate.''
The Gators felt many things Saturday, including a deep fatigue once the match was over.
As Jaeckel walked out of the postgame interview room, she told Rivers and Murphy how tired she was.
"I really need to go lay down,'' Jaeckel said.
"Me, too,'' Rivers replied.
After Saturday's dramatic comeback, they deserved to rest.