Houston unseats conference leader
The Cougar volleyball team swept its weekend home games, dealing Conference USA leader Alabama-Birmingham a stunning 3-2 upset on Sunday and sweeping Memphis on Friday to move into the fourth slot in C-USA.
Three players recorded double-doubles to help the Cougars (17-11, 9-6 C-USA) knock down the Blazers (22-5, 12-3 C-USA), completing the comeback in the fourth and fifth sets to give UAB its third conference loss on the season and placing UH 9-1 at the Athletics/Alumni Center.
Senior outside hitter Justine Farmer delivered a game-high 26 kills and 15 digs, senior setter Kelsey King recorded 47 assists and 12 digs and freshman outside hitter Nataliya Panova came off the bench to add 17 kills and 14 digs, giving her the second double-double of her career in Houston’s eighth five-set game this season.
"We were three and four in fifth set games (going into the game against UAB)," head coach Bill Walton said. "We needed to show that we could play well in the fifth game. The coaches made good adjustments, and the kids came through and played excellent in the fifth game."
In the first set, the Cougars pulled ahead early with a 7-1 run to put the score 11-7, but the Blazers were able to come back after a timeout with a run of their own to snag a 16-13 lead. The Cougars managed to tie the set 21-21 and battled to eke out the 29-27 victory.
The Blazers took the second set handily, leading the match from the outset and smacking the Cougars with a 13-25 loss.
The Blazers continued their momentum into the third set until the Cougars tied the score 9-9 and grabbed a short-lived lead of 10-9 with a kill by Panova.
"When our outside hitters were struggling, we brought Natilya (Panova) off the bench," Walton said. "She brought that needed firepower, and because she was killing the ball, it relaxed the setter and then all of our sets got better."
The Blazers went on a 3-0 run to out-pace the Cougars. The Cougars managed to tie the set once more at 20, but the Blazers ultimately took the set 25-22.
In the fourth set, the Cougars regained control, fighting a 14-18 deficit to tie the match at 22. Both teams struggled for the lead, but the Cougars snagged a 29-27 win to set up the momentum for the fifth set.
"We’ve had trouble when games are close after 20," Walton said. "We were playing a team that is really good about siding out… and we actually out-sided them out in the fourth game, which is critical because that’s what we have been looking for in the past."
The Cougars dominated the deciding set, pushing back the Blazers with a 5-0 run and closing out the game with 15-4 win.
"It was one of the biggest games for me," Panova said. "I was really ready to play before the game started and I was excited. When I got in, I knew what I had to do."
The Cougars pounced on Memphis (17-12, 8-7 C-USA) on Friday, wiping the Tigers out with the biggest point margin of Cougars’ season.
Freshman outside hitter Ingrida Zauere recorded her fourth career double-double with a game-high 12 kills and 11 digs and sophomore middle blocker Lucy Charuk contributed 10 kills and five blocks. Sophomore defensive specialist Amanda Carson added four service aces against Memphis.
The Tigers led early in the first set, but the Cougars stopped them in their tracks, tying the game 6-6. The teams traded blows until the Cougars made a 5-0 run to put the score at 15-10. From there, the Cougars led the rest of the set, winning 25-18.
"Last week, we practiced trying to stop (Memphis) from doing some of the things that they like to do," Walton said.
"We made sure that we served the ball to the people that we thought would give us the best chance to play defense against. Amanda (Carson) got on a roll in the second game and ran four aces in a row."
The Tigers opened the second set with a 2-1 run, but it would be their last lead of the game. With the set at 15-9, the Cougars made a 3-0 run completed with a service ace by Carson, sparking a Memphis timeout.
After the timeout, Carson fired off three more aces, and the Cougars glided to a 25-13 victory.
The Cougars didn’t skip a beat in the third set, keeping the Tigers out of the lead entirely to notch a 25-15 win and complete the sweep.
"We never let them gain momentum," Walton said. "We had control of the momentum all night, and that was a critical factor. We didn’t have to expend a lot of energy."
Houston closes out the regular season with a home game against the Rice Owls (21-5, 12-3 C-USA), who are in third place in C-USA and handed Houston a 3-1 loss at Fox Gymnasium on Oct. 21.
"I would like to beat Rice 3-0 just to show our strength, our sideout efficiency and blocking ability," Walton said. "You saw in the fourth and fifth game (against UAB) how much better we blocked and how much better we played. If we could do that again against Rice, we would have a winning streak going into the conference tournament, and that would also secure the 4th seat for us (going into the C-USA championships)."