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Tangerine Wiggs and her Florida teammates opened the NCAA Tournament in impressive fashion Friday.

Friday November 30, 2012Gators Open NCAA Tournament with a Performance Worth a Good Clap

Tangerine Wiggs and her Florida teammates opened the NCAA Tournament in impressive fashion Friday.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The crowd at the O'Connell Center on Friday night had barely set down when it happened.

The first point of the match was a definitive block by Gators middle hitter Chloe Mann. No one had broken a sweat yet, but in a metaphorical sense, Mann's block was like a punch that stuns a boxer before the knockout.

From the moment Mann's block bounced off the court the points piled up for Florida's volleyball team in its 2012 NCAA Tournament opener against Tulsa.

"She set the tone early on,'' Florida coach Mary Wise said. "We kind of got out of the gate pretty fast."

Did they ever.

The Gators cruised to 25-9 win in the first set and then took the second and third sets by identical 25-21 scores. The 3-0 win lifted the Gators to their 15th consecutive win in the opening round since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1998.

Mann made the opening statement but she wasn't the only one letting her play do the talking.

Sophomore Madison Monserez was diving for balls from sideline to sideline finishing with a game-high 16 digs. Mann had 10 kills and six blocks. Freshman outsider hitter Ziva Recek led the team with 13 kills. Taylor Brauneis had 37 assists. Tangerine Wiggs had eight kills. Sundai Weston had back-to-back aces just when Tulsa appeared to regain its balance midway through the first set.

You get the picture. This was a team win and a good start to the NCAA Tournament for the Gators, who advanced to Saturday's second round to face College of Charleston, a 3-2 winner over Miami.

Wise handed out a lot of passing grades on Friday, but she was especially pleased at the way Monserez performed.

Sure, those 16 digs were big, but her passing and overall court awareness made sure the Gators kept humming at a high level in their first meeting against the Golden Hurricane.

"She has really been the consummate stabilizer for us,'' Wise said. "Only a stabilizer who plays like the Energizer Bunny."

In a season that they were not expected to win the SEC regular-season title, the Gators have answered one challenge after another.

They lost outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb to a knee injury and others stepped up. They lost a key SEC match to Tennessee late in the season and then regrouped to win their final six conference matches and claim their 20th SEC title in 22 years under Wise.

On Friday they withstood lighting bolts from Tulsa scoring machine Tyler Henderson, the NCAA's all-time scoring leader. Henderson had zero points in the first set.

Henderson came on strong in the final two sets to finish with a game-high 17 kills, which drew praise from Wise. Still, the Gators were in control the entire match and looked like a team capable of more surprises deeper in the tournament.

"It was really exciting to see the focus as a whole we had from the beginning,'' Wiggs said. "Each position was making sure they were really focused and doing everything they could to contribute to a win."

Monserez was at the center of it all. A sophomore defensive specialist who has enjoyed a breakout season, Monserez knows what's at stake.

So do her teammates. They know that to go far in the tournament they will need to throw their bodies around collectively like they did against Tulsa. The bruises can heal later.

"When we get a big block, or a big dig, that's what generates our energy,'' Monserez said. "I was happy that I could provide that for the team. We are in the NCAA Tournament now -- everything is going to be hard. Going for the ball is something we have been taught to do."

Next up is College of Charleston, another team the Gators have never faced. The Cougars came back from a 2-1 deficit to win the final two sets against Miami in Friday's opener.

Champions of the Southern Conference, College of Charleston features former Penn State and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Darcy Dorton. An outside hitter, Dorton was dominant in Friday's win over Miami with 27 kills and 17 digs.

"Most of the girls have never played in a NCAA Tournament match before, so there were a lot of jitters at the beginning,'' Dorton said.

Wise watched from courtside. She saw in person what she had seen only on film previously.

Her assessment: the Cougars can play.

"It was a pretty fun match to watch,'' Wise said. "What a gritty performance by College of Charleston. They play with a lot of energy, are very competitive. It was much more fun to be sitting on the other side of the O'Connell Center watching that match than where my seats normally are."

She'll be watching from the bench on Saturday. The winner advances to the Austin Regional and the Sweet 16.

It won't be easy but Wise is confident the Gators are playing the way they need to. She pointed out how they closed out the regular season last week with road wins at Auburn and Georgia, two SEC teams that play much the same way as College of Charleston.

Wiggs, one of Florida's three seniors, isn't ready to stop playing. She said if the Gators can continue to play like they did Friday, they could keep surprising people.

"We kind of set the tone for how we want to finish the season,'' Wiggs said.

A finish they hope is off in the distance.

 

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