By Jim Harvin, Correspondent
The 12th-ranked Florida women’s volleyball team will host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament starting today in the Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center.
The Gators (25-4), the No. 10 overall seed and Southeastern Conference co-champions, will face Alabama State (17-21), which won its fourth straight Southwest Athletic Conference title this season despite its overall losing record, in the nightcap at 7 p.m.
“We talked to the players about this being the third season and the fact that everyone’s record is 0-0,” UF coach Mary Wise said. “Every team is coming in off either a great season or a great last win.
“There’s a different feeling, and it’s not just Christmas. It’s the high of playing in this tournament.”
UF is led by sophomore outside hitter Thayer Hall, who recorded a team-leading 398 kills (3.75 kills per set) and was second on the team with 33 aces (junior Paige Hammons led the Gators with 39).
Junior right-side hitter Holly Carlton (245 kills), Hammons (241) and senior middle blocker Rachael Kramer (239) are all serious offensive threats.
In addition, Kramer ranks in the top 10 in program history in three categories: hitting percentage (fifth, .406), blocks (fifth, 458) and block assists (fourth, 409).
Hall, Hammons and Kramer all earned All-SEC honors this season, with Kramer, who is already in graduate school, garnering SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year kudos.
“I am so proud of the SEC,” Kramer noted. “Having six teams in the tournament this year is incredible. We’ve been playing tournament-level teams every other week.”
Senior libero Allie Gregory, who had a career-high 25 digs in UF’s SEC-clinching victory over Texas A&M in the regular-season finale, enters NCAA play in seventh place all-time with 1,341 career digs.
Sophomore setter Marlie Monserez has been solid as well, recording 1,077 assists (10.16 per set).
SWAC Tournament Most Valuable Player and All-Tournament selection Bayle Bennett, who recorded 17 double-doubles this season, leads the Hornets.
UF is 3-0 against Alabama State, having won in 2014, 2016 and 2017. All three matches were Florida sweeps.
“It’s definitely an advantage to be able to play on our home court and with Gator Nation,” Carlton said. “Last year it was a short trip to Orlando and we were lucky enough to have a lot of fans come with us. But it will definitely be a different type of advantage to play in the O-Dome this weekend.”
As winners of the American Athletic Conference, UCF (24-7) secured an automatic bid and takes on Florida State (19-9) in the tournament opener at 4:30 p.m.
The Knights are paced by sophomore outside hitter McKenna Melville, who led the team in kills (528), kills per set (4.51), total attacks (1,431) and service aces (24).
She is second on the team in digs per set at 3.62, had 12.2 attacks per set that is the fifth highest tally in program history and ranks in the top 10 in UCF single-season history in kills and attacks.
The Seminoles, meanwhile, are led by 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Taryn Knuth, a middle blocker who led the ACC and ranked fourth in the NCAA with 154 blocks, including 24 solos.
Today’s winners will face each other Friday at 7 p.m. for a chance to advance to the Round of 16.
“There’s much to celebrate for the 2019 team, especially just their growth and how much they’ve improved from August,” Wise said. “But the most important thing is the task at hand, and the task at hand is Thursday night’s match against Alabama State.”
NCAA Gainesville Regional
Today’s first-round matches at O’Connell Center
UCF (24-7) vs. Florida State (19-9), 4:30 p.m.
Alabama State (17-21) vs. Florida (25-4), 7 p.m.
Second round Friday
Thursday’s winners, 7 p.m.