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Sunday, October 24, 2021 — Houston, TX °

Volleyball stuns No. 2 Texas, again


Photo Courtesy:  Maria Lysaker | Rice Athletics

By Ben Baker-Katz , Daniel Schrager and Reed Myers     3/23/21 8:15pm

Rice volleyball knocked off No. 2 University of Texas on Tuesday night, closing out their regular season with a shocking upset. The win handed Texas their first loss of the season, and capped off an impressive regular season for the 14-4 Owls, who have now won 13 of their last 14 matches. After the match, head coach Genny Volpe said that she was thrilled with the improbable win.

“That was one of the most exciting matches I’ve ever been a part of,” Volpe said. “Texas is such a quality team, [they have] so many weapons and [are] very well coached. They gave us a lot to handle, but we just battled and found a way to win.”

It felt like deja vu for the Owls, who have now upset a highly ranked Longhorn team for the second year in a row, after beating then-No. 3 Texas last season at Tudor Fieldhouse.

Early on, the Owls struggled to find their footing. Texas controlled the first set and took it easily, 25-10. According to Volpe, the Owls had to fight back to overcome their slow start.

"We really didn’t start well at all," said Volpe. "But what I’m most impressed with overall is how we didn’t let that affect the rest of the match. We just calmed down and started following the game plan.” 

The Owls showed resilience in the second set as they put away 14 kills on a .323 hitting percentage, winning it 25-16 and evening the score at one set apiece. The third set was a back and forth affair to the end, but junior middle blocker Anota Adekunle’s emphatic kill won the Owls the set 25-23. Rice was not as efficient offensively in the fourth set, and Texas capitalized on it, taking the set 25-14 to tie the match at two sets apiece.

For the second time in four days, the Owls found themselves in a winner-takes-all fifth set against a top-10 team. On Friday, the Owls went up two sets to one against No. 6 Baylor University, but were unable to hold on and lost the final two sets, giving the Bears the victory. This time, the Owls were able to close out the match and secure the upset.

“Heading into the fifth set, we knew that talent-wise, we’re there,” Volpe said. “So let’s finish it off. Why not us?”

The Owls traded jabs with the Longhorns throughout the final set, but found themselves down 9-12 as the match was nearing a close. But, led by their defense and a pivotal kill by senior outside hitter Nicole Lennon late in the set, the Owls took the decisive set 15-13. Afterwards, Volpe said it took strong performances from every member of the team to pull off the upset.

“It took a full team effort,” Volpe said. “We had a lot of contributions from a lot of players. As a coaching staff, that’s what gets us most excited is seeing contributions from the whole team.”

Lennon and Adekunle led the charge for the Owls’ offense as Lennon contributed a team-high 18 kills, and Adekunle produced 12 kills on a team-high .579 hitting percentage. Sophomore middle blocker Satasha Kostelecky paced the Owls’ defense with a team-high six blocks against a high-powered Texas offense that is second in the nation in kills. Junior setter Carly Graham tallied another high assist game with 32 assists, accompanied by her 12 digs on defense. Volpe credited Graham and Adekunle for their key contributions, while reemphasizing the team effort it took to down Texas. 

"Carly Graham is running an excellent offense, and [Adekunle] in the middle is one of the very best in the country,” Volpe said. “Today you got to see them shine, and then a really strong support cast that did their jobs really well and were ready to go." 

These final matches of their season, against top ranked opponents, represented a litmus test for the Owls as they head into the Conference USA tournament and, hopefully, the NCAA tournament. 

“We knew [playing Baylor and Texas] at the end of our conference season would be beneficial to us,” Volpe said. “Playing such high quality teams, we knew that would show us some weaknesses that we need to clean up. But we also know now that we can compete at that level, and with those teams.”

The Owls will look to carry the momentum from this historic road win into the C-USA tournament, which begins on April 1 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

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