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Cougars head to AAC Championship Tournament despite end-of-season blues

Following their three-set loss to SMU on Sunday, the Cougars head to Orlando, Florida to face Tulane in the AAC Championship Tournament. | Trevor Nolley/The Cougar

Houston’s regular season ended in a sweep by SMU, but the attention now turns to Tulane for the inaugural American Athletic Conference Championship Tournament that starts Friday night in Orlando, Florida.

Houston finished the season with a 10-6 record in the AAC. This is the first time the team has finished above .500 against the AAC since 2013.

“I think it’s more of a testament to our players and the type of people they are,” said head coach David Rehr. “They’ve really taken the time that it requires to buy into a new system because they wanted to change the culture, and this is something they can be proud of.”

The 2019 season can be summarized by one word for Houston: persistence.

The Cougars found themselves in 13 full five-set matches throughout the season, which led the nation, and they won eight of them.

“I don’t know what they’re built with,” Rehr said, proud of his team after a comeback win against ECU back in October. “I don’t know what the team has inside of them because there’s an automatic out where you can quit and lose the game and move on, but they just won’t let it happen, and I am proud of them for that.”

Houston has had leaders all over the team, but five players have been consistently ahead of the pack all season long.

Senior libero Katie Karbo has been a monster on the defensive side of the ball for Houston. She finished the season with 670 digs, which was second-most in the AAC.

Freshman middle blocker Rachel Tullos was also dominant on defense for the Cougars in 2019, as she was Houston’s leader in blocks with 171.

The Lantana-raised middle blocker’s best performance came against Cincinnati in October when she set an AAC record with 17 blocks in one game.

Senior right setter Megan Duncan and freshman outside hitter Abbie Jackson have led the Cougars in kills with 345 and 297, respectively.

Junior setter Abby Irvine was a master at setting up her teammates all season long. She finished with 908 assists, which was also the sixth-most in the conference.

The Cougars began conference play with a seven-game winning streak, five of which were five-set wins. Two came against Tulane and SMU, who both won double-digit games against AAC competition.

Despite the strong start, Houston struggled to close out the season with the same amount of success they had in the first seven games, as they lost six of the final nine matchups.

Living on the edge

The Cougars faced a match deficit in 12 of their 16 games against other AAC teams, including 2-0 holes against SMU twice, UConn and UCF.

Houston was able to rally in six of those 12 games from the set deficits, but most came in the first half of the AAC season, and Houston was unable to keep the magic going after its first loss to Cincinnati.

“I think we need to be more consistent on the defensive end,” Rehr said. “We’ve relied on our defense the entire season to be the spark plug for us, and whenever we’ve played defense at the level we are capable of, we’ve had success.”

Previewing Tulane

The Cougars and the Green Wave split their two meetings this season with each team winning on the road.

Houston overcame a 2-1 set deficit Oct. 4 to win the match in New Orleans 3-2.

Both Irvine, with 23 assists and 14 digs, and sophomore setter Kelsey Childers, with 22 assists and 13 digs, highlighted the night with double-doubles in the game.

Tulane won the match 3-1 on Nov. 8. Karbo starred for the Cougars in the loss with 29 digs.

The Green Wave has stars of their own. Junior outside hitter Lexie Douglas leads the team in kills with 336. Sophomore setter Amanda Giardina leads in assists with 552.

Senior libero Kaylie McHugh leads the team with 516 digs, and sophomore middle hitter Kayla Dinkins leads the Green Wave in blocks with 162.

Should the Cougars advance, the road ahead won’t be easy.

“Tulane will certainly be a challenge for us,” Rehr said. “The fact that we’ve played nine sets in our two matches with them shows how comparable our teams are, especially when you consider how three of the four sets were won by four or less points when they came to our place.

“I know they lost their final match of the regular season, but before that they had won their previous four, so overall, they are coming in on a bit of a hot streak.”

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