Head coach Ben Wallis preached to his team and local Borderland media all season his team’s goal was to finish top-four in Conference USA.
Wallis saw that goal come to fruition after UTEP volleyball (9-6, 8-4 C-USA) defeated Southern Miss (9-10, 4-8 C-USA) in straight sets once again Saturday afternoon to end its regular season on a four-match winning streak, clinching the West Division’s second seed in the Conference USA Tournament.
“It just feels good to complete what the plan was,” junior outside hitter Serena Patterson said. “We’re excited that we’re in this position.”
This is UTEP’s highest seeding in a conference tournament since its first-place finish in the Oil Country Athletic Conference in 1984.
The Miners finished with a winning record for the first time since 2012 and concluded conference play with .667 winning percentage – their best since 1985. UTEP has now won 12-straight sets in conference play for the first time since 1996 when it was in the Western Athletic Conference.
The tenth set the Miners won – and the first set in today’s match – featured the UTEP’s highest hitting percentage in a frame this season at .524. Redshirt sophomore middle blocker Kenidy Howard contributed five of UTEP’s 13 kills on five attempts in the frame.
“When you get (the middle blockers) rolling, everybody else is going to benefit from it,” Wallis said. “Now, you have an offense that has six monsters.”
Howard finished the weekend with 17 kills for her highest total in any C-USA series this season. And today, sophomore middle blocker Alianza Darley put up her highest kill total and percentage – six and .556, respectively.
“It is nice knowing (Howard and I) are back on our game,” Darley said. “Teams know that we are a pin-dominant team and I think after these couple of games, it’s going to be harder for (our tournament opponent(s)) to try to stop our pin hitters if we are doing our job.”
Darley recorded four blocks in each match this weekend for her most since UTEP’s first matches of the season versus Texas State Sept. 11 and 12.
Five of UTEP’s six attackers hit at least .385 or better in the match. Howard and Patterson led the way at .667 and .529, respectively.
“It’s pretty amazing to know we have so many weapons,” Darley said. “Southern Miss didn’t know what to do because all of us were hitting at such a high percentage… They didn’t know who was going to attack the ball.”
More than half the balls Hande Yetis and Kristen Fritsche put up for their attackers in the first set resulted in kills. Between the two, they picked up 13 assists on 21 attempts. Fritsche finished the match with 24 assists and a .632 assist percentage while Yetis finished with 19 at a .442 clip.
“It’s easier for the setters to know every one of (their) hitters are hitting at a high efficiency right now, (so they) can set whoever (they) want and we’re going to get a kill,” Darley said.
UTEP won set two, 25-18, marking its fifth time taking a set from Southern Miss by a margin of six points or more this weekend. Three different Miners – freshmen Ava Palm, Savana Trahan and Yetis – aced the Golden Eagles in the set to expand their conference lead in service aces to 109 and aces/set to 1.91.
“We’re one of the best serving teams in the conference,” Wallis said. “If (the opponent has) really good offensive weapons, we can stymie (them) because we serve it so tough over the net.”
When Southern Miss served it today, UTEP got the ball back well over half the time with a sideout percentage of .724.
In addition to leading the Miners with 15 points, 11 kills and two aces, Palm led the Miners with 12 digs and 20 receptions for her third double-double of the season.
Next up, No. 2 seed UTEP volleyball heads to Hattiesburg, Ms., April 1 for its first Conference USA Tournament victory since 2008 versus No. 3 seed Marshall.
Gallery by Ruben R. Ramirez – El Paso Herald Post