MADISON, Wis. - As Gators coach Mary Wise sat between players Marina Markova and Merritt Beason at the postgame press conference, she studied the box score of her team's loss to Pittsburgh.
No. 3-seed Florida, which fell behind by two sets, pushed back at the second-seed Panthers to claim the third set decisively. The Gators threatened to do the same in the fourth but ran out of gas, losing 3-1 (25-20, 25-21, 17-25, 25-22) in a fiercely contested NCAA Tournament region semifinal here at the UW Field House late Thursday afternoon.
The loss ended Florida's run in the NCAA Tournament, and the disappointment leaked from the eyes of Markova and Beason afterward. While Wise shared their desolation, she could see how close the match was in the numbers on the box score.
"So proud of this team to get here with as little NCAA experience [as we have],'' she said. "I mean, we outscored Pitt. We had more kills. We had more blocks. We out dug them. We had more points. We just didn't win in the final scores. Some of their players have 12 NCAA matches under their belt; for some of our players, it was three. "Such a big difference in the experience level, and I thought that was the difference in the match."
Florida's inexperience on the college game's biggest stage showed up primarily on first touches. The Gators had 11 service errors and four reception errors, which limited their ability to reel off significant scoring runs and maintain momentum.
The Panthers (30-3), who advanced to the national semifinals a season ago, are too good of a team to serve free points on a platter. The Panthers made the Gators (25-6) pay most harshly, ending Florida's season and the possibility of a rematch against host Wisconsin on Saturday. The Gators beat the Badgers three months ago on the road.
Florida took early leads in both the first and second sets, but each time, the Panthers recovered behind veteran right-side hitter Courtney Buzzerio, whose six kills in the first set overshadowed Markova's five in the opening game.
In the second set, the Gators went up 8-6 before the Panthers went on an 11-3 run to gain control. Florida flexed back in the third set, hitting .571 behind five kills from Bre Kelley, three from Gabbi Essix and two from Markova, plus five aces, led by a pair from freshman setter Alexis Stucky.
The turnaround showed why the youthful Gators, with Markova and graduate Rhett Robinson the only seniors on the roster, were here in the first place.
"At that point, we had nothing to lose, and they had all the pressure on them,'' Beason said. "I think when we shifted that mindset, that was the difference. We talked about it in the huddle before we started that set. 'We're going for it. We literally have nothing to lose.' We were just going with it, and I think that's the loose Florida team. The third set was really a reflection of who we are."
In the fourth set, Pittsburgh opened a 6-2 lead before the Gators got going and tied it three different times, the last on a highlight-worthy over-the-shoulder dunk by Stucky that made it 10-10. However, the Panthers slowly pulled away and finally put the match away on Buzzerio's kill for a 25-22 fourth-set win.
Buzzerio finished with a game-high 19 kills, while Markova had a team-high 15 for Florida, and Beason chipped in 13 kills, nine digs, three assists and two blocks. Panthers coach Dan Fisher was glad to escape with a win.
"I thought it was a really good volleyball match,'' Fisher said. "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."
In the end, the Gators dug too deep a hole.
"Early on, we missed so many serves we didn't have a chance to defend,'' Wise said. "We held them to .224 [hitting]. Defensively, we did some really good things. There's so many good things these Gators did on the floor."
That was Wise's message to the team afterward.
Following the departures of several key players from last season's team that advanced to the region semifinals, Wise wasn't sure what to expect of this year's group when they gathered in the spring to turn their attention to the upcoming season.
But in time, newcomers like Markova, a transfer from Syracuse, and SEC Freshman of the Year Stucky blended seamlessly with the players already on the roster. Markova, a Russian who plans to turn professional after earning her degree in the spring, reflected on the journey in the aftermath of Thursday's loss.
"It was really amazing. I did not expect to have such an experience, at least people-wise,'' Markova said. "These girls are so much fun. I definitely can rely on them as my best friends. The same for Mary Wise. It's not exactly how [I wanted it to turn out] unfortunately, but it was still very huge experience for me."
In her 32nd season, Wise has taken all types of teams to the NCAA Tournament in her distinguished career. With Markova and Merritt seated beside her, she said few were as enjoyable to coach as this one.
Their season is over, but the Gators made their mark.
"You never get a team like this,'' Wise said. "But I did and I truly enjoyed every minute of it. These guys have been awesome.
"There is much to be excited about when we get over this one."
- Marina Markova finished the 2022 campaign with 22 matches in double-digit kills after her 15-kill performance against Pitt
- Merritt Beason finished the 2022 campaign with 21 matches in double-digit kills after her 13-kill effort against Pitt
- Sofia Victoria finished the 2022 campaign with 16 matches in double-digit kills after her 10-kill performance against the Panthers
- Elli McKissock sits at ninth in program history with 17 digs and finished the 2022 season with 26 matches in double-digit digs
- Florida is now 81-33 (.711) all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including an 80-32 (.714) record under Wise
- The Gators finish the 2022 season with a 25-6 record
- The team won its 25th SEC Championship
- That mark is the third-best total in the entire conference among all sports since volleyball's inception into the SEC in 1979
- All 25 SEC titles have come under Mary Wise, meaning she has won at least a share of a conference title in 25 of her 32 seasons at Florida
- The 25 titles are the second-best mark at Florida since 1984, with only women's tennis having more titles in that time frame (26)
- It was also the 256th SEC title for the Gators athletics program - the league high
- During the year, the Gators extended their streak to 32-straight seasons with an NCAA Tournament appearance and have also won at least 20 matches in 32-consecutive years
- Florida moves to 1-3 in the all-time series against Pitt
- The Gators are now 0-2 in four-set matches against the Panthers