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After a complete collapse two days ago, UTRGV bounced back in style, playing relentless defense and capturing a 25-22, 25-16, 25-19 win over California Baptist on Saturday at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

For the fifth straight match, the Vaqueros jumped out to a 2-0 set lead. For the fourth time in those matches, they completed the sweep, the only loss coming Thursday to Grand Canyon University. The win improves UTRGV to 12-9 on the season and 6-2 in the conference and in third place. Cal Baptist dropped to 10-8 and 3-4.

Perris Key and Claudia Lupescu paced the UTRGV offense with 10 and eight kills, respectively while middle Luisa Silva Dos Santos added seven mostly vicious kills and hit at a .333 clip.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Perris Key (2) hits acorss the net against California Baptist University in a WAC game on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

It was the defense, however, that stole the show, at one point bringing the crowd to a standing ovation after multiple saves during one long rally that Cal Baptist kept firing the ball at UTRGV but the Vaqueros dove, slid and chased down every attack to earn the point. It was more than just an impressive gritty showing from the UTRGV defense, it was contagious between all the players on the court.

“It was a great bounce back win and I thought we bounced back emotionally really well from the start and put a lot of pressure on them defensively,” head coach Todd Lowery said. “It was kind of a different look from the other night when we were so good offensively. Today we forced them into a lot of mistakes and extended some really, really long rallies – a couple of our longest rallies of the season tonight.”

Unlike Thursday against Grand Canyon when UTRGV looked frazzled in the later sets after winning the first two, the Vaqueros seemed to be in charge the entire match. Even when trailing on multiple occasions in the first set, UTRGV’s demeanor was nothing but focused, The score was tied eight times in the first set and had five lead changes, the final one coming after a Key kill to make it 21-20. Freshman outside Nadine Zech and junior middle Margherita Gianni then added a pair of kills to end the first set.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Luisa Silva Dos Santos (7) sends the ball across the net against California Baptist University in a WAC game on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

After that, the score was tied only three more times, all in the third set, the final one coming at 5 before UTRGV 11-5 run led by a Zech kill, a pair of Lupescu kills and a beautiful looking back set tip from setter Luanna Emiliano that took the Lancers completely by surprise.

Lupescu, a junior outside from Romania, also had one of her most complete performances of the season, hitting at a .229 clip and adding one of three UTRGV service aces along with a couple breath-taking diving digs.

Once again, Emiliano ran the offense to near perfection, played amazing defense, led the Vaqueros in assists with 24 and was second in digs with 17 as Cal Baptist, like every other team in the WAC, did everything they could to target the junior setter and get UTRGV out of system. That’s easier said than done, especially when libero Kiraliz Perez was there for many of the second balls, setting up hitters when Emiliano was the target on almost every ball sent by CBU. Perez finished the day with 19 digs and nine assists.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Luanna Emiliano (9) celebrates after a point scored against California Baptist University in a WAC game on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

“It takes pressure of the hitters because they don’t always have to take the big swing or they don’t have to press the angle a little harder because they don’t feel the pressure to score,” Lowery said about the importance of the defense for his hitters offensively. “When they don’t feel the pressure to score, they can be more patient and wait for those one-on-one opportunities and take a higher quality swing. It takes pressure of them.”

UTRGV’s defense held California Baptist to a meager .053 hitting percentage and the Lancers committed 24 attack errors – eight in each se“We don’t feel we have to kill every ball,” Key said. “I’ve tipped more this year because I know in the back they will get the next ball and then when I get the next ball I can go after it.”

UTRGV returns to action at Abilene Christian at 6 p.m. Thursday and then at Tarleton at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Vaqueros return home for a 6:30  p.m. match at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 26 against conference leader Stephen F. Austin.

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