Owls volleyball team punches ticket to NCAA tournament

By Kenny Bybee

For the fourth time in program history and first since 2009, the Rice Owls volleyball team is NCAA tournament bound after sweeping Florida International University (FIU) 25-21, 25-22, 26-24 Nov. 18 in the Conference USA Championships title match in Huntington, W.Va.

Rice Volleyball playersRice (24-6) earned the C-USA automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the second time, having also accomplished the feat in 2009. The Owls were an at-large qualifier in 2004 and 2008.

The Owls outhit FIU (19-12) by a .315-.215 margin and placed three players in double-figure kills. Junior Grace Morgan and sophomores Nicole Lennon and Kassidy Muse recorded 10 kills apiece, while freshman Anota Adekunle added eight kills while hitting .500.

The Owls, who lost just one set during the tournament, also posted 11 team blocks, led by eight from Morgan.

Adekunle, Graham, Lennon and Morgan earned spots on the C-USA All-Tournament Team, with Adekunle earning MVP honors. The freshman from Humble, Texas, posted 30 kills and hit .531 for the championship along with nine blocks.

“I’m really proud of our team,” Rice Head Coach Genny Volpe said. “It was a great match and we came out pretty strong and set the tone early on. FIU has some tough offensive weapons who are difficult to defend. To watch our team flourish in a championship match was a lot of fun. Sometimes if you’re the No. 1 seed you have a little bit of pressure on you, but I didn’t see that with this team. We were very composed, and confident and were never worried about rankings or outside distractions.

“Our future is obviously very bright. We just have to keep our foot on the gas. We have high hopes for this program and to do big things and these young players are going to help us reach those goals.”

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Adekunle said. “Just being with my team and being able to celebrate with them is a wonderful feeling. It was just my first year, and getting to know these girls and forming a sisterhood with them is amazing.”

“This was our goal from the very first day,” Lennon said. “We knew from the beginning there was nothing stopping us. I’m just elated.”

Rice couldn’t have asked for a better start. The Owls took a 6-0 lead to open the first set, helped by a pair of kills from Muse and two FIU errors. The Panthers fought back to tie the set at 18-18 with a 5-1 run, but Rice never relinquished the lead. The Owls closed on a 7-3 run to win 25-21.

The Owls started fast again in the second set by using a balanced scoring attack, jumping out to a 13-7 advantage. FIU never got closer than 22-19 late, as Rice closed strong to win 25-22. The Owls hit just .220 for the set but managed to hold FIU to a match-low .077 hitting percentage.

Rice’s match-clinching, 26-24 victory in the third set featured seven ties and four lead changes. FIU led 24-22, but as has been the case all season, the Owls played their best with their backs against the wall, reeling off four consecutive points to prevail.

To keep tabs on the Owls during the NCAA tournament, be sure to visit www.RiceOwls.com and follow @RiceVolleyball on Twitter.


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