Missouri volleyball falters against No. 7 Florida, falling just short in Game 1 and very far in Game 2

The Tigers dropped two more road matches and failed to meet the Gator’s stamina over the weekend.

Senior hitter Kylie Deberg ran through her approach as she hammered the ball toward Florida’s back row. Her hit, too hot to handle, ricocheted off a Florida defender.

But Gators’ freshman libero Elli McKissock sprinted toward the back line and dove to keep the ball in play. Point, Florida. The rally victory led Florida to win the third set.

Missouri led two sets to none before a Gator set win, which ruined the Tigers' hopes of a sweep. Florida roared back to life, coming back from two sets down to win a five-set battle 3-2 Friday afternoon.

McKissock’s relentless athleticism inspired her teammates, specifically junior defensive specialist Riley Fischer. She reacted to a deflection of a block by sliding her body against the court and extended her arm to pop the ball up. Her persistent pursuit helped advance Florida’s lead 20-6 in the first set of the second match.

The energy from the come-from-behind win carried over to Saturday’s match, where the Gators completed the sweep with clean, dominant play.

After splitting matches to South Carolina two weekends ago, the Tigers learned that unforced errors allows opponents to move past them; minimizing these was key to competing against top SEC teams.

In Friday’s match, Missouri made attempts to limit errors against Florida, as sophomore outside hitter Anna Dixon adjusted her approach to tool points off the Gators’ block. However, Dixon and her teammates continued to rely heavily on Deberg. The ball gravitated toward the senior throughout both matches.

From the back row, Deberg passed a serve in the second set over to junior setter Andrea Fuentes so proficiently that she didn’t take one extra step.

Back row can be difficult for taller players, but not for the 6-foot-4 SEC leader. Fuentes found a favorable three-option offense in front of her, but awarded Deberg’s precision with a set back to her.

The senior killed the ball to keep Missouri on top in the set and ultimately seal the win. Along with the Gator’s overpasses, Friday’s performance matched her career-high of 25 kills in a game.

Florida continuously targeted the ball toward Deberg, who responded well to the challenge. She tallied 13 digs — even more than freshman libero Emily Brown.

But Missouri eventually ran out of gas and committed unforced errors. 11 of Missouri’s 14 service errors came from the second half of the day.

Coach Joshua Taylor noticed his team’s exhaustion late in the fourth set, but had already used all timeouts. With no other option, he challenged a call, knowing the Tigers would lose it, just to give his team a break.

Despite Missouri’s ability to narrow its own errors early and use Florida’s to extend its runs, it could not outlast the Gators.

“We battled through some tough moments,” Taylor said. “It just came down to a few plays that Florida made.”

Florida’s outside hitter T’ara Caesar stepped into the spotlight for the Gators’ offense by hitting in between the seam of Missouri’s block and matched her career-high 24 kills in a match.

Along with the diving saves of McKissock, Florida put together a 5 point run in the fifth set that concluded a thrilling matchup Friday.

Like South Carolina, Florida took the 27-hour break between games to strategize ways to prevent more Deberg domination. The answer was to finish what it started, and the Gators did just that as they clinched the final set of Friday’s match 15-13.

Florida came screaming out of the gate, quickly opening a 10 point lead against the Tigers.

The Gators adjusted their gameplan, producing more offense from the middle of the formation and less from the sides. Redshirt senior setter Holly Carlton had a day to remember, posting a career-high .733 hitting percentage.

Missouri didn’t do itself any favors throughout the match. The Tigers posted 21 attack errors in just three sets, a symptom of reliance on a depleted Deberg.

Florida used unrelenting pressure, precision attacks and a .714 hitting percentage to cruise to a lopsided 25-10 victory in the first set. Additionally, Florida committed no errors in the first set.

Inspired play from Florida’s defense kept the Tigers at bay in the second and third sets. At any point in the match, Missouri could not string together a run larger than two straight points.

Just like the back half of Friday’s match, the Florida offense kept Deberg busy. Pestered with attacks, Deberg managed only five digs. The All-American posted her lowest point total of 15.0 since Missouri’s Feb. 13 loss to Tennessee. While Missouri certainly had their shortcomings in this match, Florida’s play lived up to their No. 7 ranking.

“Today was a tough one,” Taylor said after the game. “Florida played really good volleyball.”

The Tigers dropped to 11-7 on the season and head back to the Hearnes Center, where they will look to snap a three-game losing streak against Texas A&M next weekend.

It is hard to say which match will be tougher for Missouri to rebound from — a close battle on Friday or sound defeat on Saturday. But it is clear that to make a tournament run, the team has more to learn to compete against the best of the best.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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