By Eden Otero – OnlyGators.com Contributor
No. 8 Florida Gators volleyball earned a hard-fought 3-2 win over the No. 9 Illinois Illini on Friday evening in the Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2011.
Florida (28-3) led early but eventually fell behind and was forced to come back from one set down to take down Illinois (26-8) in Ames, Iowa.
OnlyGators.com breaks down the victory with five quick-hitters.
It was over when: After blowing consecutive match points and finding itself even with Illinois at 14-14 in the fifth and final set, Florida won back-to-back points to clinch the come-from-behind victory. A quick block by sophomore middle blocker Shainah Joseph, followed by a solid set from junior Mackenzie Dagostino led to a match-winning spike by sophomore Alex Holston, allowing eight-seed UF to pull out the hard-fought win.
Significant stretch: The Gators started the match up 1-0 but dropped two sets in a row to the Illini and suddenly were desperate in a 2-1 hole. Despite trailing 2-1 in sets, Florida picked up momentum in the fourth set when Joseph was brought in as a substitute for freshman middle blocker Rhamat Alhassan. The fourth and fifth sets were Florida’s most consistent and fluid play of the evening, and the Joseph substitution had a lot to do with the Gators’ turnaround.
Prominent player: Holston finished match with a double-double of 18 kills and 10 digs to go along with six blocks. She was one of few Florida players who was able to get the offense moving over the course of the match. Holston has proven to be consistent for UF throughout the tournament and led the Gators in scoring this season with 3.78 kills per set.
Standout stat: Florida’s inconsistencies serving have been apparent throughout the season, but the discipline was such an issue for the Gators on Friday that it nearly cost the program its championship hopes. UF finished the contest with 16 service errors, an issue it must address as it moves forward.
What it means: The Gators slugged out a win on Friday in a match that they may have otherwise lost if not for their gritty and aggressive play. Florida is now becoming known for its close and hard-fought matches, making it a menace for the opposition.
Next up: Eight-seed Florida must take down one-seed Stanford on Saturday evening in an Elite Eight showdown if it hopes to move on to the Final Four for the first time since 2003. Looming for the Gators is 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman Merete Lulz, one of the best middle blockers in the nation.