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Gators coach Mary Wise has the Gators back in the Sweet 16 after Saturday's win over College of Charleston.

Sunday December 2, 2012Fast Start in NCAA Tournament Boosts Gators' Outlook with Texas on Horizon

Gators coach Mary Wise has the Gators back in the Sweet 16 after Saturday's win over College of Charleston.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida volleyball team could not have drawn it up much better.

The Gators took the floor at the O'Connell Center on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and blew past Tulsa in three sets. They were back Saturday night, this time hosting College of Charleston with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line.

The Gators walked off the court a little more than an hour later with a sweet taste in their mouth.

Once again, Florida won in three sets, cruising past the Cougars 25-20, 25-16, 25-14.

Florida won both matches in very businesslike fashion. The Gators played physical up front. They worked efficiently on offense. Their passing was crisp. They dove for balls and formed walls at the net.

They played like a team determined to hang around this postseason party as long as possible.

Tangerine Wiggs was one of three Florida seniors to play their final match at the O'Dome on Saturday. Wiggs and fellow seniors Betsy Smith and Sundai Weston said goodbye to the home fans the way they envisioned: with a win.

Still, Wiggs showed little interest in waxing poetic or getting overly sentimental when asked about her final home match.

After all, this is the NCAA Tournament.

"It feels great. It was something that was on my mind in the beginning [of the week],'' Wiggs confessed. "At the same time, we have very big goals for this team. By no means did we want this to be our last game we played.

"Our main goal is much farther down the road."

The next stop along that road makes a stop at the Austin Regional on Friday night when the Gators face host Texas, the tournament's No. 3 overall seed and a 3-1 winner over Texas A&M on Saturday.

The Gators and Longhorns squared off earlier this season at the Nike Big Four Class on Penn State's campus. Texas swept a tightly contested match.

That was more than three months ago and both teams have new looks. The Gators' makeover might be the more drastic, however.

The first meeting with Texas was just Florida's fourth match of the season and came only two weeks after the Gators lost outside hitter Noami Santos-Lamb for the season to a knee injury.

The Gators were still in adjust mode, trying to figure out what they had in freshman Ziva Recek and other young players. They soon learned Recek had a powerful swing that helped her earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors.

"We had no idea that she had that in her,'' Wise said. "We were making it up on the fly. I think right now we have a much better idea of who we are."

The Gators' identity was out in the open Saturday night against College of Charleston for everyone to see.

The Cougars hung tough in the first set for a while, but the Gators' size and execution eventually took over the match.

"I give them a lot of credit for what they did,'' said College of Charleston coach Jason Kepner. "Their execution didn't give us much of a chance to do what we like to do."

Junior Chloe Mann paced the Gators with a team-high 10 kills and a .615 hitting percentage. She also added four blocks, often teaming with Wiggs (game-high seven blocks) to form an imposing tandem at the net whenever the Cougars tried to fire away.

Shortly after taking a victory lap around the court to slap the hands of fans, Mann reflected on the way the Gators opened the tournament.

Florida swept its first two NCAA Tournament matches for the first time in three years, relying heavily on setter Taylor Brauneis to direct the way. Brauneis had 66 assists in the two wins.

"I'd say the way we excelled was definitely due to our amazing passing and, even on defense, our back row players were able to get the ball in good positions for Taylor to distribute really evenly,'' Mann said. "If we can continue to stay focused throughout the whole stretch of the tournament, that's really going to be what helps us."

Wise walked off the court smiling as the Gators advanced to the Sweet 16 for the eighth consecutive season. She had ample reasons.

There was the game plan associate head coach Dave Boos drew up. There was pinpoint execution. There was high defensive IQ the Gators relied on against the offensive-minded Cougars.

There is also the way this team goes about its business. Even a trip to Texas and a match on the Longhorns' home court doesn't seem nearly as scary as three months ago.

"It will be a huge challenge for us,'' Wise said. "I think this team -- they're just so steady -- I don't think they will get overwhelmed. We're certainly not the favorite. Texas is an incredibly physical team. They play so high above the net. That is what makes them so dangerous.

"We take that experience [of facing Texas earlier] but know the score is zero-zero when we walk on that floor -- their floor."

The Gators walked off their floor for the final time Saturday night a winner. They can check their first goal of the NCAA Tournament off the list.


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