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The Gators' surprising run to the Sweet 16 ended Friday night at Texas.

Saturday December 8, 2012In the End, These Gators Hung Around Longer Than Expected

The Gators' surprising run to the Sweet 16 ended Friday night at Texas.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

AUSTIN, Texas -- They lingered around outside the gym when the match was over, sharing hugs with their families and coaches and team personnel.

Seemed fitting since that's what this Florida volleyball team did all season. The Gators lingered, hung around when a lot of people expected them to be long gone.

Time finally ran out on Friday night against Texas. The Longhorns, in front of a sold-out crowd in their home gym, swept Florida from the NCAA Tournament in three sets -- 25-22, 26-24, and 25-17.

More than an hour later the Gators gathered at a local steakhouse here for a final team dinner. They went around the room one by one sharing a favorite story from their unexpected journey together.

Each player spoke. Coaches chimed in. The team's support staff took a turn. They sang happy birthday to senior Tangerine Wiggs, who turned 23 on the day she played her final game.

Head coach Mary Wise tweeted.

"It's not losing that's so tough, it's ending one of the most special seasons I've ever been part of that's the hardest,'' Wise said to officially close her 22nd season.

About four hours earlier the underdog Gators walked into Gregory Gym believing they could compete with the No. 3-seed Longhorns despite being swept by Texas in a closely contested match in late August.

And they did. Right from the start.

The Gators led 13-10 in the first set before an 8-1 run turned momentum to Texas. Florida responded in the second set and led 24-22.

It appeared the match was about to be tied and the possibilities endless for a Gators team picked to finish third in the SEC. But the Longhorns rallied, showing why they are considered one of the favorites to win the national title.

First, there was a back-row attack error on freshman Ziva Recek that came out of nowhere. Wise couldn't remember another time all season that call was made against Recek.

Then a monster triple block at the net by Texas brought the crowd to its feet.

You could sense the Gators were in trouble.

Texas closed out the set on Haley Eckerman's kill and while there remained a third set to play, the Longhorns seized the moment and never gave the Gators a chance.

“It was a battle, but we knew going in that Florida had played us tough the last time and that they had improved a lot over the duration of the season,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We are probably a little more seasoned than Florida is – and a little more experienced – and that gave us the boost we needed.”

Elliott saw firsthand what those who have seen the Gators play all season already knew.

The Gators are young -- Wiggs, Betsy Smith and Sundai Weston are the only seniors -- and return five starters next season. Overall 13 of 16 players on the roster return, including six true freshmen.

Junior middle blocker Chloe Mann is Florida's star and she played like it Friday, leading the Gators with 14 kills and a .500 hitting percentage. Like the Gators, Mann was under the radar nationally when the year began but not anymore, not after winning SEC Player of the Year honors.

"I think Chloe Mann showed, at least to the Texas fans, that this is a first-team All-American,'' Wise said. "We felt really good about our ability to get kills in the middle."

The Gators ended up back in the Sweet 16 when making the tournament was in question three months ago.

They were unable to overcome too many obstacles Friday. Too many errant passes. Too many wobbly serves. Too many Bailey Webster kills.

With Florida holding All-American Eckerman to a .185 hitting percentage, Webster found a way to offset Florida's triple block defense to finish with a game-high 15 kills.

"We had no defensive answer when she gets over the block,'' Wise said. "If you don't have to play against it, that's pretty entertaining. We knew we couldn't let both their outside hitters go off. Bailey was phenomenal."

The Gators were close to making things interesting until Texas scored the final four points in the second set.

That will eat at them for a few days. They know they were in the match. Win that set and it changes the complexion of the whole match.

But it didn't happen, so another season is put to bed. Time to look ahead for a program that will likely garner much more preseason attention next year than this year.

"It was a great experience playing against great teams like Texas,'' said Recek, the SEC Freshman of the Year. "We just learned a lot from this."

Wise's tweet summed up the way she feels about this team, about this surprise of a season.

Two years ago the Gators played here as the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. They lost to Purdue in the Sweet 16. The disappointment was crushing considering some thought the 2010 team could be the one that finally earned Wise her first national championship.

This year the expectations were much different. Still, in the end, the 2012 team finished in the same spot as the much more heralded team of two years ago.

Players like Wiggs, Smith, Weston and Mann were around then, too.

They seemed to have much more fun this time around.

"I would just say surpassing expectations,'' Mann said when asked what she'll remember most about this group.

The Gators' team motto this season was 'No Excuses.'

After losing Friday, after walking off the court for the final time as a group, they offered none.

They had no reason to. They lingered around longer than anyone expected other than them.


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