Florida's 2015 volleyball season — by some standards the worst one the Gators have ever had under the venerated Mary Wise — had taken a turn for the better in the NCAA Tournament. The No. 11 seed Gators staged a comeback to pry perennial thorn Florida State from their hide at home last Friday, then rallied after dropping the third and fourth sets to stave off No. 6 Wisconsin this Friday — and, in so doing, won their first five-setter in six tries in 2015.
On Saturday, No. 3 Texas loomed — but the Gators had a recent history of success in Austin to lean on, having defeated the Longhorns in regular season matches in Gregory Gym in both 2014 and 2015.
And when Florida used signficant contributions from the towering and powerful Rhamat Alhassan to win a first set against the 'Horns, it seemed possible a third starry night in the Lone Star State was coming to pass.
But Texas rallied, taking the next two sets and a commanding 15-11 lead in the fourth. And then Mackenzie Dagostino, Florida's senior setter, rallied the Gators on her serve, helping run off six straight points with two consecutive aces, and buying Florida just enough space to claim the fourth set.
The decisive fifth set featured one of the great officiating blunders in recent memory.
With Texas up 7-6, the ball worked its way back to Florida's Carli Snyder, an outside hitter who racked up 13 kills and hit an impressive .290 on the night. She blasted a ball behind the Longhorns' defense to a spot a foot or more in front of the back line.
The linesman called it out.
Remember: This is "out" in Austin. pic.twitter.com/gH0n6i1JTG— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) December 13, 2015
Another angle. This is basically the moment of impact. Best I can do with an iPhone and a TV. pic.twitter.com/zpboNYXZuj— Alligator Army (@AlligatorArmy) December 13, 2015
This was the wrong call, and clearly so on replay, something that prompted ESPN's Beth Mowins and Karch Kiraly, working the ESPNU broadcast, to react with shock that such an obvious call could be missed — especially in a pivotal fifth set of a match that would send one team to the NCAA Tournament's Final Four and end the other's season. Instead of Florida forcing a 7-7 tie and getting a chance to serve, Texas took a two-point lead, and the sides changed on the point — and Texas would win the next one to go up 9-6, then run its lead to 11-7.
Before the 8-6 point, ESPN cameras caught Dagostino asking Snyder, point blank, "Are you mad?" Snyder's nod and Dagostino's implict "Then play like it" were evidence that Florida wouldn't go down without a fight — and after a Wise timeout, it fought tooth and nail to prove it couldn't be vanquished by one bad call alone.
The Gators rallied to tie the set again at 11-11, then took the lead at 12-11 after a thunderous Alhassan kill. Texas then fought back, producing a 13-13 tie with both two points from advancing. Florida fought off two match points to produce a 15-15 tie — but then the Gators ran out of gas.
Texas star Paulina Prieto Cerame recorded her 17th and 18th kills of the match, one short of Alhassan's match-high 19, on its final two points, securing the Longhorns' 22-25, 25-22, 25-19, 20-25, 17-15 victory, and passage to the Final Four.
And, frankly? The Gators were robbed.
As Snyder and Alhassan noted late Saturday, the match came down to two points.
"It was a fun match to play. The entire time on the court, I could see in everyone's eyes that we wanted that so bad,'' sophomore Carli Snyder said. "It was such an exciting match. We wanted it so badly for our seniors. It's just hard to have that kind of match come down to two points."
"Texas was putting up a fight and we were putting up a fight,'' said Alhassan, who finished with a team-high 19 kills. "The fact it came down to two points is just so unfortunate."
Both sophomores were talking about the two points at game's end — in a decisive first-to-15 fifth set in volleyball, once both teams get to 13 points, the match will inevitably be won by the first team that strings together two points from a tie score.
But the blown call that turned Snyder's phenomenal kill into a phantom attack error was worth two points, too: It cost the Gators a point and gave one to Texas. And given that Florida would later lead 13-12, it isn't a stretch at all to say that Florida might well have had a match point — or a win — without that officiating error.
This, rightly, incensed Florida fans who tuned into ESPNU midway through last night's match — an epic, exhilarating show would end up being marred by a terrible call. While there's no guarantee that the Gators would have knocked off Texas with the correct call, there can also be no debate that Florida was penalized incorrectly by a mistake that was anything but the Gators' fault.
This will burn Florida fans for quite some time. And while Texas benefiting from a providential poor call on its home floor is merely circumstantial evidence for crackpot theories about corruption, Texas and other high seeds might be perceived as beneficiaries of home cookin' in the future, thanks to new NCAA rules that will put all regionals on home campus sites beginning in 2016.
This, taking my love for Florida out of the equation, was a thoroughly unfair (and likely avoidable) circumstance for two teams who played the sort of brilliant game that deserved to end with a clear, uncontroversial result. The Gators and Longhorns both played so hard and so well, and it's a crying shame that a referee's failure casts doubt on whether the right team won.
Florida will likely remain among the nation's elite in the future, and you can guarantee that Wise will use that call and this loss to motivate her team to take care of business and secure home court in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Florida might be better in 2016, too, with Alhassan, Snyder, and junior Alex Holston all stepping into leadership roles and a talented six-woman freshman class that includes five players named to the AVCA Under Armour All-America first or second team arriving on campus, though replacing seniors Dagostino, Ziva Recek, and Nikki O'Rourke is a tall task.
The memory of this night, however, will be seared into the brains of any players who were on the court in Texas when blight made a plight out of a fight. If the Gators use it well, maybe they'll make things right on their own in the future.