Behind a loud Memorial Gym crowd of 230, the UTEP women’s volleyball team downed Rice in five sets to begin Conference USA play with a win on Friday.
The Miners took set one in a thrilling 28-26 fashion, but the Owls came back to claim set two 25-16.
UTEP would get the set three win 25-22 but Rice answered with a 25-19 set four victory to force a fifth a decisive set. In another down-to-the-wire set, the Miners prevailed to get the 16-14 victory and take the match 3-2 and earn a 1-0 conference record, 4-10 overall, while the Owls fell to 0-1 in conference and 10-5 overall.
“The team worked so hard, it’s just nice to see it payoff,” head coach Holly Watts said. “I’m just so proud of them. We passed amazing, it’s a serving and passing game and that’s what it all boils down to, if you can control passing it then you have all your hitters available. The consistency of the passing was there all night and our high hitting percentage was the result of that.”
Pacing the Miner offense was sophomore sensation Macey Austin, who hammered down a new career-high 27 kills with only ten errors, followed by freshman powerhouse Cheyenne Jones with 14 kills.
“It feels amazing [career-high kills], I could not have done it without my team,” Austin said. “That was such an exciting game and we wanted to come out strong and get our first win in conference. It’s huge for us to set our goals and achieve it. The entire team was focused on this game with big energy coming from everyone.”
Briana Arellano recorded her third double-double, throwing down 12 kills at a .324 clip while also picking up 18 digs. Amanda King dished out 55 assists, and the Miner defense had double-digit showings from Cebak (18), Arellano (18), and Ali Vidali (14). UTEP also had a block party Friday night, recording 22 block assists with Kylie Baumgartner leading the way with seven, to stop the Owl offense.
“It feels amazing to get the win. It’s the first time we came out as a banger to win our first conference game right away and it was so nice to do it at home,” Cebak said. “The team had a lot of fight tonight and that’s what we need to continue each game as the season goes on.”
In total, the Miners totaled 74 kills, 69 assists, six service aces, 66 digs and 22 block assists. The Owls had 67 kills, 63 assists, five service aces, 77 digs, four solo blocks and 16 block assists.
Though Rice pushed a five point lead in set one at 15-10, the Miners climbed back to stay neck-and-neck with the Owls, tying at match point and then two more times before consecutive UTEP kills by Jones and King, coupled with a Rice attack error ended set one 28-26 in the Miners’ favor.
The Owls would dominate set two in a 25-16 fashion, but UTEP stayed in control in set three, never letting their lead slip and allowing Rice to only tie once before taking the 25-22 victory. Rice would again get a comfortable victory in set four, 25-19, to force a decisive set five with a 2-2 match tie.
“We need to start off strong on sets, during the second and fourth set we settled a little bit and that led to us falling behind and dropping those sets,” King said, “We need to keep the energy going, that really helped us fight throughout the game. We also need to start each set strong to put ourselves in the best position to win.”
UTEP would jump to a 3-0 lead behind consecutive kills by Macey Austin and an Arellano service ace to start set five before the Owls got on the board and tied the set from three consecutive Miner attack errors. Mallory Yost would get the Miners the 4-3 lead with a kill, but the set was tied again with a block from Rice’s Kassidy Muse and Grace Morgan. Three UTEP kills and a service ace later, the Miners forged an 8-5 lead. The Owls would mirror UTEP’s efforts, however, to tie the set at 8. The set would tie five more times (9-9, 10-10, 11-11, 13-13, 14-14) before Austin hammered her 27th kill of the match and Rice’s Nicole Lennon had an attack error to give the Miners the thrilling 16-14 set five victory and the 3-2 match win.
The Miners will continue conference action on Sunday when UAB enters Memorial Gym. First serve against the Blazers is set for noon.