R-So. MB Kenidy Howard & Fr. OH Ava Palm | Photo by Ruben R. Ramirez – UTEP
UTEP volleyball (5-4, 4-2 C-USA) returns after its bye week to face Rice (11-3, 10-0 C-USA) – the conference leader in wins – in Memorial Gym Sunday and Monday at 1 p.m. and 12 p.m., respectively.
The Miners had just one week of preparation following a mandatory quarantine after their trip back from North Texas on March 1 which resulted in a positive COVID-19 test within the UTEP program. UTEP will be without its starting libero Hula Crisostomo due to a season-ending knee injury in its match with North Texas on March 1.
“I’m frustrated that we aren’t going to be able to run our best lineups out there, but we can still win these matches with the players we’ve got,” head coach Ben Wallis said. “When that whistle blows and that first point happens on Sunday, it’s going to be two good teams battling it out.”
The Owls hold the upper hand in their all-time series with the Miners with a 39-10 record. UTEP has only won two matches in its last 30 meetings with Rice.
“I’m just hoping to see a competitive mindset,” Wallis said. “We talked after practice (Saturday) that if you’re preparing to come into the match feeling sorry for yourself and why we can’t play hard and well, this isn’t going to go well. But if you walk into the match thinking, ‘We’re going to make it real hard on (Rice) in our home gym and we’re going to do the things we do well’ – we’re one of the best serving and receiving teams in the conference – then it’ll be different.”
Rice has finished top four in the conference each of the last six years and received bids to the NCAA tournament the last two seasons. The Owls were selected to finish atop the western side of the conference in C-USA’s Preseason Poll released in Jan.
Returning to the court for Rice this season are 2019 C-USA First Team selections Nicole Lennon and Anota Adekunle. Lennon is first in the conference in points per set (5.23) and fourth in kills per set (4.21), meanwhile Adekunle is second in C-USA in hitting percentage (.458).
“They’ve got spectacular athletes to start,” Wallis said. “They’ve got two athletes on their team that are the best athletes in the country, not just in the conference.
“The real key to the match is how well we can defend their special players.”
Setter Carly Graham – who is coming off a setter of the week performance with 109 assists over the Owls’ last two matches versus North Texas – leads C-USA with 375 assists.
As a team, Rice leads C-USA this season in assists (470), kills 507 and digs 557 and are second in blocks (2.54/set) and hitting percentage (.290).
UTEP is off to its best start to conference play since the 2013 season. The Miners defeated UTSA for the first time in a decade on February 22 and went on to sweep the Roadrunners the next day. The next weekend, UTEP split with North Texas to defeat the Mean Green for its first victory in Denton, Texas, in 27 years.
Against North Texas, UTEP notched the top two kill performances in the conference to that date with 77 kills on Feb. 28 and 73 kills on March 1. The Miners also recorded 75 assists in the Sunday match versus the Mean Green – the most in the country.
Freshman Ava Palm is second in the conference in service aces with 15. Senior Cheyenne Jones is fourth in hitting percentage (.404) and tenth in kills per set (3.24)
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