Gators rally for SEC tourney title

Florida comes back to beat Arkansas 3-2 for its ninth SEC tourney title.

Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2002 at 1:14 p.m.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Florida won its ninth Southeastern Conference Tournament in 10 years Sunday, but the Gators needed a dramatic rally to do it.

Florida fended off an 0-2 deficit, then denied one championship point by Arkansas in a 3-2 (27-30, 28-30, 30-19, 30-16, 19-17) victory over the Razorbacks.

The win moves No. 7 Florida to 23-1 on the season, and all but ensures the Gators will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, beginning Nov. 29. Arkansas, fighting for an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, fell to 20-11.

Three Gators set career-highs in various offensive categories. SophomoreBenavia

Jenkins had a career-high 21 kills, sophomore Jacque Robinson had 19 kills and senior Kris Bova posted 80 assists.

Sophomore Aury Cruz, who went down with a shoulder injury in the fourth game, returned and had 18 kills en route to winning tournament MVP honors. Junior Nicole McCray added 19 kills.

Arkansas, which upset Florida in the 1997 SEC title game, was meeting Florida in the tournament final for the sixth time in the last seven years. Sunday also marked the second time this season Florida had played a five-game match. The Gators came back from an 0-2 deficit to win 3-2 at South Carolina on Sept. 21. That match was also the last time Florida had lost a game as the Gators string of consecutive games won ended at 57.

Florida, which won the SEC regular season title with a perfect 14-0 record, has two matches remaining before the NCAA Tournament pairings are announced Nov. 26. Florida will take on Virginia Tech on Friday and No. 24 Notre Dame on Saturday at the Conference Challenge at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando. The Gators match against Notre Dame, which won the Big East championship Sunday, will be their last chance for another quality nonconference win before the NCAA seedings are announced.

Still, without Sunday's rally, the Gators' NCAA seeding would have already taken a serious hit.

In the decisive fifth game, Arkansas jumped out to a 4-1 lead before Florida called a time out. The Gators came back and received back-to-back kills from McCray and pulled within 6-7. Arkansas would lead 10-8 before Florida tied the game for the first time on a McCray kill.

Arkansas, though, managed to get a championship point when it led 14-13. However, after a Hartley kill tied it at 14, Robinson served an ace for Florida's chance at match point. Bova served up the match point as Jenkins killed an attack for the win.

Still, Florida turned the game around after going into intermission down 2-0.

Florida opened the scoring in the third game with a 5-1 lead. The timeout called by Arkansas at that point did not help as the Gators reeled off another two points to extend the lead to 7-1. Hartley killed an attack and Jen Mandes served an ace to give Florida an 11-4 lead. Robinson killed a ball and McCray and Bova assisted on a block to give Florida a commanding 16-7 lead. Florida had a 20-10 lead in the third game and won 10 of the final 19 points to work its way back into the match. Florida hit .514 in the second game, with Robinson adding six kills in the game.

Florida led 12-9 in the fourth game when Cruz went to the floor with an injured left shoulder and left the game. Florida kept its composure as Jenkins recorded a solo block to give the Gators a 15-10 lead before Arkansas called timeout. Out of timeouts, Arkansas could not stop the next Gator run until the score was 19-11. Florida continued to control the game and held a 25-14 lead before finishing off the game 30-16.

Florida opened the match with an 13-7 lead. Arkansas inched back to tie the match at 19. A rally that lasted nearly a full minute was won by the Gators and a kill by Cruz gave UF a 21-19 advantage and forced Arkansas to call a timeout. The Razorbacks won the next three points to take their first lead of the match and then pulled ahead 26-22 before closing the game out. Florida held an early 4-2 lead in the second game, but Arkansas tied the score at nine. Florida inched ahead with a 15-13 lead at the television time out. What was once Florida's two-point lead, quickly became Arkansas' 17-16 advantage, after which Florida called a timeout. Robinson served up an ace and assisted on a block coming out of the time out to give UF the lead once again. UF's largest lead of the game was three points at 21-18.

Florida had a 27-26 advantage in the second game before the Gators were called for an illegal rotation violation, which tied the game at 27. After a Florida timeout, Arkansas earned two quick points and earned game point. The Razorbacks won the second game on their second game point.

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