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EDINBURG – Claudia Lupescu provided instant offense, Luanna Emiliano surpassed another milestone and the UTRGV defense shut down anything and everything Southern Utah tried en route to a 25-21, 25-23, 25=18 over the visiting Thunderbirds in a Western Athletic Conference volleyball match Thursday at a crowded UTRGV Fieldhouse.

The win improves UTRGV to 8-8 overall and 2-1 in the WAC while Southern Utah fell to 4-9 and 0-3.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Claudia Lupescu (1) celebrates with teammates after their victory in the second set against Southern Utah in a WAC home opener at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

Lupescu, a 5-foot-11 junior outside, came into the first set with UTRGV holding a 20-19 advantage. Her first touch resulted in a kill, then caused a sideout with another attack as the Vaqueros claimed the first set. Lupescu, from Bucharest, Romania, led the team offensively with 10 kills while adding an ace and a block assist.

“For her to come in and at the biggest moments, shows the comfort she has,” UTRGV head coach Todd Lowery said. “The set was pretty tight when we made that change and to come off the bench and go in and make an immediate impact; it’s hats off to Claudia and the work she puts in.”

“I just knew when I got in that I had to make a difference,” Lupescu said. “I’m just trying to bring the game in once I’m in. I feel like I was putting extra pressure before but now I was more relaxed and was like, OK, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

The Vaqueros tallied 41 kills to just 26 for the Thunderbirds. Perris Key and Ilana Assis each added 10 and middle Luisa Silva Dos Santos had seven kills, 2 solo blocks and three block assists.

In the end, however, the night belonged to – like it so often has the past three seasons – junior setter Emiliano. The Belo Horizonte, Brazil, native, had 36 assists (Utah had 22 as a team) and a team-best 15 digs. Midway through the match last season’s WAC setter of the year – stepped into second place in program history by recording her 2,962nd assist, moving her past Dubravka Vukoja, who played from 2015-18. Only Chelsea Blakely, who played from 2005-08 has more with 3,905. Emiliano ended the night with 2,970 career assists, 935 behind Blakely.

“Two and a half years and she’s already there, that’s impressive,” Lowery said. “Its a career for most setters. And, as impressive as that is, she still leads in digs. It was just a great all-around performance.”

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Kiaraliz Perez (8) serves the ball against Southern Utah in a WAC home opener at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

After a week with two matches that didn’t reach the UTRGV expectations defensively, on Thursday, the defense played at an elite level, both along the front and all over the court. Libero Kiariliz Perez, a junior from Naranjito, Puerto Rico, tallied 10 digs and pin-hitter Assis added 11. The Vaqueros kept the Thunderbirds hitting at a dismal .078% success rate, extending several rallies that surely looked to be finished.

“We talked early on about defense and extending rallies,” Lowery said. “I thought we were defending early but converting that into errors, trying to score on the first swing. But, once we settled down and quit making hitting errors, we saw our chances and came on the attack. I thought we got progressively better as the night went on.”

UTRGV returns to actions at 2 p.m. Saturday at home against Utah Tech.

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