HOUSTON – The Rice volleyball team was in position to defeat a nemesis from the north and in the process take over first place in Conference USA all to themselves.
But even with a 2-1 set lead and a five point lead in the fourth set, the Owls couldn’t fend off a Tulsa rally in Sunday’s winner-take-first-place match at Tudor Fieldhouse.
“Tulsa is a great team who we have battled for years,” said Rice coach Genny Volpe. “We felt like we had the upper hand and were in the driver’s seat.”
The Golden Hurricane rallied from 12-7 and 17-13 down to take the fourth set 25-23 and then carried that momentum into a 15-10 fifth set victory.
“In those situations, we have to mature,” Volpe said. “When we see a point spread that big, we have to take advantage of it.”
With the win Tulsa (12-7, 5-0) is all by itself on top of the Conference USA standings. Rice (11-7, 4-1) is a game behind. The teams were picked to finish 1-2 in the preseason rankings, with defending champ Tulsa favored to repeat.
“Overall, our team fought 90 percent of the time. It was that 10 percent where we lost our focus,” Volpe said. “We can’t afford to do that against a team like Tulsa.”
Rice only led twice in the first set (1-0 and 25-24) but ended up winning with a late flourish 26-24.
The team split the first 24 points of the set. Tulsa built a two-point lead at 14-12, 15-13, 16-14, 19-17, 20-18, 22-20 and 24-22. Each time the Owls came back to tie the match.
Megan Murphy forced the tie at 24 all when she dropped the ball over the net in front of the Golden Hurricane blockers. After a Tulsa timeout, Lizzy Bache recorded back-to-back kills to give the Owls the set. Bache and Mariah Riddlesprigger each had five spikes in the first set as Rice recorded 19 as a team.
“It gave us a lot of confidence and momentum going into the next few sets,” Murphy said of the first set comeback. “We knew if we could come back against a good team like that we could definitely win the match.”
Tulsa used a 7-0 run to take control of the second set. Rice was able to cut the lead to 16-13, but Tulsa answered by winning four of the next five points. Tulsa’s Tyler Henderson had six kills in the second set.
Henderson was thorn in the side all afternoon long. She finished with a game-high 26 kills. Volpe said they were trying to score as much as possible when she was off the court.
“She really stepped it up,” Volpe said. “They were scoring points pretty much every time she touched the ball.”
The Owls won the third set 25-22. Tulsa took four of the first five points, but the Owls a minute later embarked on a 9-1 run to take a 12-7 lead. The spurt started with a kill from Nancy Cole. After Miriele Gobbo hit it into the net for Tulsa, Cole notched two more spikes. Murphy added a kill and then Riddlesprigger scored on a service ace.
Volpe said the Owls passing was really solid.
“When our passing is solid then it really helps our setter distribute the ball to anyone she wants,” Volpe said. “I also encouraged the team to keep attacking and don’t give Tulsa anything easy. When we did that, it worked. I just think Tulsa stepped up their defense and they deserved the win.”
With Rice up 17-13 in the fourth set, two errors cut the lead in half. A kill by Henderson and a Tulsa block tied it up at 19. Henderson then gave TU the lead with a spike. A block from Carly Boatwright and one from Diana Silva combined with a badly hit ball from Rice made it 23-20 Golden Hurricanes.
Rice won three straight points to draw within 24-23, but Henderson powered through a kill that the Owls couldn’t handle.
Tulsa took the lead 3-2 in the fifth set on a Henderson kill. Winners from Bailey Clampitt, Maura McGivern and Kellie Culbertson pushed the lead to 8-4. A pair of kills by Cole kept Rice alive, but Silva’s spike ended the match.
“Tulsa knows how to win games and they know how to finish games,” Murphy said.
The loss snapped a six match win steak for the Owls. It also was the fifth straight victory for Tulsa in the series.
Rice continues its four-match homestand with a Friday outing against UTEP. First serve is at 7 p.m.
Tulsa 24 25 22 25 15
Rice 26 20 25 23 10
Rice Team Leaders
Kill leaders: Cole 18, Riddlesprigger 14, Murphy 9
Assist leaders: Murphy 52, Arenas 6
Dig leaders: Vaio 23, Riddlesprigger 22, Arenas 22