UTRGV volleyball opens WAC tourney with five-set victory over Tarleton

The No. 3-seeded UTRGV Vaqueros volleyball team showed their grit as they battled for a thrilling 3-2 (26-24, 25-18, 21-25, 19-25, 15-13) victory over No. 6-seed Tarleton State Texans Thursday at Lockhart Arena in Orem, Utah in the first round of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Tournament.

After winning the first two sets, UTRGV (19-11) dropped the next two. The Vaqueros then saw junior Kiaraliz Perez, the recently named WAC Libero of the Year, go down with an injury after a block put Tarleton State up 12-10 in the fifth.

UTRGV rallied wonderfully, showing great support for each other and playing with resiliency. The Vaqueros closed the match on a 5-1 run, scoring four in a row and securing the 15-13 win with a massive block by junior right side Perris Key and senior middle blocker Luisa Silva Dos Santos.

The Vaqueros advanced to the semifinal round of the WAC Tournament with the win and will face #2 Grand Canyon Friday at 4 p.m. back at Lockhart Arena.

Junior outside hitter Claudia Lupescu tied her career high with 23 kills on .302 hitting, also recording nine digs to lead UTRGV offensively. Key contributed 17 kills on .300 hitting with six digs, three blocks and two aces. Santos and junior middle blocker Margherita Giani tabbed nine kills each and combined for seven blocks. Perez recorded 23 digs and five assists before being carried off the court. Junior setter Luanna Emiliano earned her 19th double-double with 53 assists, 10 digs, two kills, two blocks and one ace.

Tarleton State (16-15) saw Rajini Fitzmaurice collect 15 kills, Allison Bryant with 12 and Breanna McDonough get 10. Matti Theurer and Kenzie Kellerman tabbed 15 and 14 digs, respectively, and Megan Hodges had 33 assists. Madison Frank collected seven blocks.

The quarterfinals match, like the two prior between these squads, was tight from the start. Freshman outside hitter Nadine Zech was hot early, recording three quick kills to help the Vaqueros stay up by two or three. The Texans used a 4-0 run to take the lead, 15-13, and force a UTRGV timeout. Key notched a pair of kills to swing the momentum back to UTRGV, helping her team score four in a row and get back on top 18-17 with help from Tarleton State ball handling errors.

Another scoring run put the Texans up 21-18, then the back-and-forth momentum went back in favor of UTRGV. Lupescu ripped a sharp kill to spark a 4-0 run, aided by a block from Santos and Emiliano to reclaim the lead. Lupescu fired off a heavy swing to the center of the court to reach set point, then UTRGV’s aggressive offense forced a miscue by the Texans to secure the first set, 26-24.

Set Two looked a lot like the previous one through the first 25 points, seeing the teams exchange scores with good defense and loud kills. Emiliano notched a second-touch kill to go up 13-12, sparking a 5-0 run backed by a pair of Lupescu kills and an ace from sophomore Sharyland Pioneer alum Natalie Reyes for a 17-12 lead.

The Vaqueros continued to attack efficiently to maintain the lead and take the second set 25-18, going up 2-0 in the match. With the Texans trying to slow down the edge pins, Emiliano turned to her middles and found success. Santos powered through the block and Giani recorded four kills in the set, including the clincher. UTRGV’s block was disruptive as well to hold Tarleton State to .222 hitting while the Vaqueros hit .406 in the frame.

Tarleton State took an early 12-6 lead in the third set with a solid attack and help from UTRGV service struggles. Key and Lupescu gave great efforts to bring the Vaqueros back and make it another tight set. Key notched five kills in the frame, mixing up her locations with her massive swing from the right side to spark scoring runs leading to a tie at 16-16.

The Texans went on a late 4-0 run to be the first to 20, but the Vaqueros showed great fight, led by Key. The junior right side tabbed three big kills and an ace to trim the deficit to 22-21, but the Texans held on to take the frame 25-21.

Momentum stayed on the side of the Texans to start the fourth set, opening up a 10-5 lead. Tarleton State passed well to stay in system and saw its hitters get hot, bringing UTRGV’s passing efficiency down. The Texans led by as many as eight points as the Vaqueros were unable to score in runs. Lupescu tabbed six kills in the set to help UTRGV get within five, but the Texans won 25-19 to force a fifth set.

UTRGV and Tarleton State traded points to open the fifth frame before a 3-0 Vaqueros run created a 7-5 lead after back-to-back kills by Key. The Texans responded and the teams again swapped scores and gritty plays until the Vaqueros took control late.