Florida ousted by Illinois in regional final

UF's Kristy Jaeckel (6) and Kelly Murphy, left, misplay a hit as Taylor Unroe watches during Saturday's match against Illinois in the regional finals at the O'Connell Center.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 11:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 11:44 p.m.

Colleen Ward having the kind of match she had Saturday night at the O'Connell Center would have thrilled Florida volleyball fans a couple of years ago.

Instead, Ward's impressive double-double that included a match-high 23 kills and a .500 hitting percentage (just two errors in 42 attacks) pretty much spoiled the evening for the heavily-partisan Gator crowd of 3,523 as the Illinois senior paced the Illini to their first NCAA regional title since 1988 with a 3-1 win over UF.

The Illini's 25-22, 23-25, 25-14, 25-20 victory ended a 10-match Florida winning streak as well as the Gators' season at 27-6, while No. 3 seed Illinois (31-4), the highest seed still playing, advances to Thursday night's NCAA semifinals in San Antonio against the winner of the Southern Cal-Pepperdine match that did not start until midnight EDT.

“Congratulations to Illinois who just came in here and played so well,” said UF head coach Mary Wise. “They never gave us a chance by making very few unforced errors, and that's sort of been their method all season. They have enough point scorers and they don't make errors, and we just had no answers.”

“I just want to say that in this match Florida played at a really high level,” Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly said. “Congratulations to them for making it to the final eight. I thought it was a good match that could have gone either way. They were tough to stop; they're one of the best offensive teams we've faced.

“I thought our girls did a real good job of making some adjustments and did a little better job of controlling some things on defense that gave us a chance to win. We went out and played volleyball the way we want to play, and that's tough. I'm proud of them for that.”

Ward, who played at UF for two seasons before transferring to Illinois, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the regional, but she downplayed her individual effort.

“I'm just proud of my team,” she said. “I'm excited because this is where we wanted to be in the beginning of the season, and it's just awesome that we got there. I thought it was a tough match today but we battled it out.”

Illinois also got great efforts from senior outside hitter Michelle Bartsch (12 kills, nine digs) and sophomore libero Jennifer Beltran, who had 13 digs against UF after tying the Illinois NCAA tournament mark with 26 Friday against Ohio State. Redshirt junior setter Annie Luhrsen added a match-high 51 assists for the Illini, who committed just five hitting errors in the final three sets of the match.

Florida, which reached the elite eight for the first time since 2005, was led by the senior tandem of Kristy Jaeckel and Kelly Murphy, who had 19 and 13 kills, respectively. Jaeckel added 11 digs for a double-double, while Murphy capped her Gator career with her school-record 30th triple-double, adding 21 assists and a match-high 17 digs.

The senior Gator duo joined Ohio State's Emily Danks, Michigan's Alex Hunt and Illnois' Ward, Bartsch, and Beltran in earning All-Region Tournament team kudos.

“I couldn't be prouder of the way we fought,” Jaeckel said. “Going into the tournament, we may not have been a seeded team, but we fought as hard as we could and I think that we played the best volleyball we played all season. Tonight things didn't go our way, but I couldn't be more proud of everyone who stepped up and just took their game to the next level these last couple of weeks.”

“I was just really impressed with the way we were able to come through and fight in every single match,” added Murphy. “Everyone found a way to step it up, and we made it past the sweet sixteen, which is something I haven't been able to do until this year. So it was just a lot of fun playing with this team through the tournament.”

Seeing the careers end for two of UF's all-time greats was a trying moment for coach and players.

“We battled, and I can't say enough about these two,” Wise said. “They go out swinging and they just played awesome. Unfortunately we didn't get every Gator's A game, and we knew that to win the match we would have to have that. A couple of our players just had an off night, but it wasn't Kristy and Kelly. They have given everything possible throughout their careers. They are irreplaceable.”

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