Gators volleyball: Florida falls to Pitt in NCAA tournament, finishes season 25-6

Ainslie Lee
The Gainesville Sun

When the Florida Gators' volleyball team walked into the Wisconsin Field House on Thursday afternoon, it made for the group's second trip there this season.

Florida visited defending national champion Wisconsin on Sept. 16 and returned to Gainesville having upset the Badgers 3-2.

However, when the Gators drew the Pitt Panthers in the third round of the NCAA tournament, they didn't have the same luck. Instead, Florida suffered a 3-1 season-ending loss and closed out its season 25-6.

"I thought it was a really good volleyball match,'' Pittsburgh coach Dan Fisher said of the Gators. "We had just enough to get the win. I thought they were very physical at the net and in the third and fourth set, they really upped their defense. They really pushed us to the limit."

Here are takeaways.

Florida defense challenges Pitt, but comes up short

The Gators generated early leads in each of the opening two sets against the Panthers, but ultimately found themselves in a two-set deficit as Pitt's Courtney Buzzerio found her swing and errors began to mount.

However, in another gritty performance, Florida stormed back in the third set, keeping its season alive.

It was the Gators' defense that led the way as Florida tallied five third-set blocks, while the "error bug" seemingly bit the Panthers, who tallied 11 in the third set.

Florida went on to win the third set 25-17, which was the first set of the NCAA tournament Pitt had lost.

Coming into the fourth set, the Gators' season was still on the line. And Mary Wise's team certainly played like it.

Florida rookie Alexis Stucky, who was named the SEC's Freshman of the Year, flew around the floor in the third and fourth sets, even colliding with the scorer's table down the stretch.

The Gators, who trailed by as many as four in the fourth set, battled back to tighten the score to 20-18 and then again to 24-22 after letting the Panthers once again extend their lead to four points.

But a kill from Buzzerio, who led the way with 19 kills, brought Florida's comeback bid to a halt and ended the Gators' 2022 campaign.

Gators struggle behind the service line

By the numbers, Florida beat Pitt in many aspects of the game.

The Gators posted a hitting clip of .304, while the Panthers finished at .286. Pitt also committed three more attack errors than Florida in the four-set bout.

However, a turbulent time at the service line is what ultimately haunted the Gators on Thursday as Florida committed 11 service errors to Pitt's three.

Coming into the matchup, the Gators had averaged less than nine service errors per match.

Florida has strong core group returning in 2023

The Gators celebrated just two seniors this season in outside hitters Marina Markova and Rhett Robinson.

And while losing Markova, who led the Gators in kills with 352, and Robinson is notable, Florida fans should find comfort knowing that the Gators return the majority of their roster in 2023.

The anticipated returns of Stucky, Merritt Beason, Sophia Victoria, Bre Kelley, Elli McKissock and Gabi Essix are huge for the Gators, who finished the season having won a share of this year's SEC title.

Beason and Victoria both finished with double-digit kills on Thursday, while Markova led the Gators with 15 kills. Meanwhile, Kelley and Essix combined for nine blocks in the loss, while McKissock finished with 17 digs and eight assists.