As Bakeer Ganesharatnam and his coaching staff discussed strategy separate from the players before the start of the pivotal fifth set against Memphis, senior outside hitter Tyler Davis knelt beside the Owls’ bench to address the team.
“I was like, ‘No matter what happened in the past four games this is the only set that matters,’” Davis said she told the team before the final set. “‘This is one game to 15, like we need to pull together and work hard because if we pull apart as teammates, we’re not going to do it. Like we need every single person to do it.’”
After a back-and-forth frame with nine ties and six lead changes, Davis got the final kill to give the Owls (16-6, 9-3 American Athletic Conference) their fourth straight win Friday night at McGonigle Hall.
Temple scored the first point of the fifth set, but trailed 5-1 after a run by Memphis. Ganesharatnam opted to substitute senior outside hitter Caroline Grattan into the game for Davis, who made attack errors on the Tigers’ second and fourth points. The move allowed Davis, who admittedly struggled early in the set, to get a rest, Ganesharatnam said.
Playing from behind made the fifth set more difficult to win, junior outside hitter Izzy Rapacz said.
“We’re usually a mental team, so it was really a challenge to see if we would crack or keep persevering,” Rapacz said. “It was a big challenge. It’s hard to play a fifth set. Memphis is a really good team, but I was really happy the way it came out at the end.”
The Owls closed the gap, going on a three-point run after switching sides of the court to take a 9-8 lead. Sophomore middle blocker Iva Deak, who converted 6-of-7 attack attempts, had two kills and an assist on the run.
“That was huge, and in a situation like that you need someone who just comes out and executes and she totally did that today for us,” Ganesharatnam said of Deak’s play in the final set.
Memphis eventually took a 13-11 lead, needing two points to clinch the win. The Owls answered to tie the game at 13, prompting a timeout by the Tigers.
In the first point coming out of the timeout, Rapacz hustled to make a one-handed dig near the Owls’ bench after a shanked pass. She then ran back toward the net to make one of her seven blocks and give the Owls the lead again.
“Oh my God, that was crazy,” Davis said. “That changed the atmosphere. That was really good. We needed that point because if that hadn’t happened, I don’t know, because they would have been one up on us and then who knows what would happen on that last play. So that was awesome effort from everyone on the court at that moment and that really I think changed the pace of the game.”
Despite entering play toward the bottom of the conference standings, the Tigers had been playing well of late, riding a three-match winning streak. Aided by 13 attack errors and a negative hitting percentage by Temple, Memphis took the first set 25-17.
The Owls came back to claim the next two sets 25-13 and 25-23. Junior middle blocker Janine Simmons and senior middle blocker Kirsten Overton each had three kills in the second frame, helping the Owls hit a game-high 36.1 percent.
In the team’s annual Hawaiian Night game where ballboys and ballgirls wear Hawaiian shirts and songs like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played in between sets, sophomore libero Mia Heirakuji, a Hawaii native, made 23 digs and played in all five sets.
Temple’s hitting fluctuated throughout the match. Junior outside hitter Irem Asci led the team with 18 kills, but only had a 1.8 percent success rate. The team hit 2.7 percent in the fourth set, but combined to hit 28.2 percent in the sets it won.
After four matches in an eight-day span, including two on the road, the Owls have an entire week before their road contest against Houston.
“The players are really drained and need a little break and they’re going to get a little break,” Ganesharatnam said. “And then we’re going to prepare for Houston, which is another tough matchup. This conference, is no matter what the records is, all the teams are really good so it’s very tough to take a break. There’s no such thing as that. In my country they say, ‘After the game is before the game.’ So we just finished a game, we got to start preparing for the next one.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.