By Megan Herboth
HOUSTON, Texas (UCFKnights.com) - In a season of milestones, the UCF volleyball team added another to the list with a 3-1 (25-20, 25-14, 22-25, 25-15) win at Houston.
The Knights clinched its first American Athletic Conference title and earned the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. UCF's last conference title and NCAA appearance was in 2003. At 23-7 overall, the Knights also matched the win total from the 2003 season with two matches remaining in the regular season.
"Today was a win for all of us, including the teams that laid the foundation in 2008," UCF head coach Todd Dagenais said "I'm still having a hard time putting into words what this means because it hasn't sunk in yet. I'm proud of my players; I'm proud of my staff. I'm proud of the university and I hope that they are equally as proud of us."
UCF (23-7, 16-2 AAC) battled back from an early deficit in the first set. Senior Jade Hayes pulled the Knights within one with an ace and junior Abbie Fleener tied the set on the next rally with a kill. A Houston service error tied the score at 10-10 which UCF used to build a lead. Holding a slim 18-17 lead, a Fleener kill and Cougar attack error pushed the Knights lead to 20-17 and forced a timeout for Houston. Senior DeLaina Sarden terminated a play with a kill to give UCF a 23-20 advantage and prompt a second timeout for the Cougars. Another Sarden kill and a Houston attack error gave UCF the 25-20 first set win.
Houston notched the first point of the second set but UCF went on a 4-0 run that included kills from Sarden and senior Loren Cory, along with a block from the pair. The Knights kept attacking, using kills from Hervey, Sarden, Fleener and senior Kaye-Alese Green to build a 12-7 lead. The Knights served up a pair of aces as part of a 4-1 run that increased the lead to 17-8. Houston was unable to pull any closer than eight points down the stretch. UCF closed the set with a 5-1 run to take a 25-14 set win and a 2-0 lead in the match.
The Cougars opened the third set with three quick points and prompted an early UCF timeout. Senior Ashely Gialenios pulled the Knights even and teamed with fellow senior Green to give the Knights an 8-7 lead with a block. Another UCF block pushed the lead to 9-7 and forced Houston to call a timeout of its own. Matching each other kill-for-kill, the teams played a close stretch until Houston served up an ace and extended its lead with a block from Kaiti Water and Hunter Wise. The Cougar lead pushed to three, 17-14, and prompted the Knights to use their final timeout of the set. Kills from sophomores Kia Bright and Jale Hervey, along with a kill from Sarden late in the set delayed the Cougars, but Houston claimed the 25-22 third set win.
Hervey opened the third set with a kill and started a 9-1 run for the Knights to open the fourth set. The Knights continued to dominate the fourth set, as Sarden slammed down a kill before heading back to serve up a string of four points for UCF. Houston used its two timeouts early in the set, but could not slow down the UCF momentum. Sophomore Shelby Foyer served up an ace which Green and Gialenios followed with a block to give UCF the 20-8 advantage. Hervey set the Knights up for the match point, but a Houston kill and UCF attack error delayed the celebration. The Knights clinched the win and the conference title on a Cougar service error that secured a 25-15 set win and a 3-1 match victory for the Knights.
"After the end of the third set, the team called each other out and said we can't start a set like that," Dagenais said. "That was it; that was the only discussion. We put in our lineup; we went out there and started the next set strong. Our season is not over yet. We're back to being 0-0."
Jale Hervey led a trio of Knights that finished with double figures in kills. She tallied 13 kills and hit .400 in the match. Kia Bright posted her ninth double-double of the season, finishing with 12 kills and 11 digs while serving up an ace. DeLaina Sarden hit .444 with 10 kills, four blocks and an ace on the day. Kaye-Alese Green tallied nine kills on 13 swings for a .538 hitting percentage and posted four blocks. Shelby Foyer posted a team-best 15 digs in the match while Jade Hayes finished with 10 digs for UCF.
The Knights return to The Venue to close out the regular season. UCF hosts Cincinnati at 5 p.m. on Wednesday and Memphis in a 2 p.m. match on Friday.
UCF Volleyball is presented by Radisson- UCF Area. For more information on how to purchase tickets, visit UCFKnights.com or call 407-UCF-1000.