COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a moment 14 years in the making, South Carolina volleyball upset No. 4 Florida Thursday night, 3-2, snapping a 23-game losing streak to the Gators. A pair of Palmetto state natives led the Gamecocks to the victory, with freshman Riley Whitesides leading the team with 23 kills and Kaely Ann Thompson making her senior night a memorable one with 31 assists and seven digs. Fittingly, the duo combined for the game-winning point in the fifth set.
The Gamecocks are now finished with the fall schedule, wrapping it up with a 5-3 record. The Gators entered the match having not lost a single set through its first five matches, and now fall to 5-1.
"Our message all week and even after last night was that when we control our side we're a pretty good team. There were stretches we did it yesterday but just not enough," head coach Tom Mendoza said. "I actually thought Florida set one was was really good, their hitting percentage was good they were siding out, it was a really high-level set. Florida was able to keep that level up and we dropped a little bit the next two sets, but then I love the way we respond in the fourth set, just keeping the pressure on Florida. That's how you beat any team but especially how you beat good teams."
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SET ONE: The Gamecocks were determined to find a faster start than they had in Wednesday night's loss, and were able to boost their confidence with a 25-21 win in an opening set that was hotly contested. All told there were 16 ties and five lead changes, but South Carolina pulled away from an 18-all tie for the early advantage. Kills from Kyla Manning and Whitesides broke the tie and keyed a 4-1 run from 18-18, and Whitesides' sixth and seventh kills of the set closed the door on Florida's comeback opportunities. Both offenses hit over .350 in the set, but an impressive 80 percent sideout percentage for the Gamecocks was the key as the Gators were unable to get the runs they needed.
SET TWO: The visitors answered quickly in the middle sets, though, starting with a 25-17 margin in set two that evened the match back up. Manning and Whitesides accounted for eight of the team's 12 total kills in the set, but Florida out-hit the Gamecocks .414 to .100 and scored 10 of the final 14 points in the set.
SET THREE: South Carolina pushed back at the start of set three, with Ellie Ruprich recording three early blocks that built a 6-2 lead and forced Florida into a quick timeout. Out of the break, the Gator offense clicked in and finished out the set with 16 kills and just three more attacking errors after falling victim to Ruprich's fast start at the net. After retaking the lead, Florida saw the Gamecocks threaten just once down the stretch, as a Ruprich kill cut Carolina's deficit to 21-20, but the visitors closed it out for a 25-21 final and a 2-1 lead in the match.
SET FOUR: Undeterred, Ruprich enjoyed an even bigger role at the net in the critical fourth set. The freshman had a hand in four of the team's six total blocks and South Carolina rolled to a 25-13 blowout that forced a fifth and deciding set. The Gators accounted for just nine kills and committed eight attacking errors in the fourth, meanwhile the combination of Manning and McKenzie Moorman alone totaled 10 kills for South Carolina.
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SET FIVE: It appeared as though Florida had righted the ship in the final set, with the Gators building a 9-5 lead in a game of first to 15 points. Mikayla Robinson emerged as the early x-factor, converting four kills on just six swings to help South Carolina rally back and Whitesides took it from there. Behind the service of Thompson, the Gamecocks scored the final five points of the game unanswered for the 15-12 clincher. Whitesides accounted for all five of those points on kills, with the final attack bouncing off the tape and landing in front of Florida's blockers to end the match.
Senior Kaely Ann Thompson on winning the final match of her career
"It's a rush of emotions. I can't can describe it, I can't do anything but thank my team for letting me have this opportunity… Honestly, going into it there's always those nervous emotions, like 'Oh, this is it for my career', but you know in my head, it was just like, 'yeah, this is it'. There's nothing else to do except play my best volleyball I've ever played in my life and it was just so fun. My head is still spinning."