It took a career night by junior outside hitter Gabriella Matautia and a late offensive surge with their backs against the wall to save the Owls (15-7, 5-3 in Atlantic 10 Conference) on Friday.
Matautia caught fire against Fordham (12-15, 4-4) with 30 kills as Temple escaped their trip to New York in a come-from-behind five-set thriller. Matautia’s previous career mark was 23 kills, set last season against Duquesne.
“I think [Matautia] had a tremendous night,” coach Bakeer Ganes said. “She did a great job for us on defense as well, which is probably one of the weaker points of her game.”
“We had a great serve-receive,” Matautia said. “Kind of the whole team worked out, it gave me a better chance to hit the ball.”
Temple dominated the first set thanks to Matautia’s seven kills. The team hit .370 in the set while recording three blocks and walked away with a comfortable 25-17 victory.
But the tide turned dramatically in the second set. Matautia recorded four more kills, along with two aces. The Owls jumped ahead 5-1 to open the set but the Rams chipped away, eventually tying the score at 9-9. A 7-3 Fordham run pushed the score to 17-13. While the visitors chipped away they were never able to even the set, falling 25-22.
Fordham kept up the pace in the third set, pulling ahead 8-4 to start. The Owls fought back to within one a few times, the last being 15-14, but the Rams pulled away with a 25-19 victory. Matautia tacked on another eight kills, leading all players.
“We were making all these unforced errors and we were kind of in a funk,” Matautia said.
Temple jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the fourth set thanks to three kills and a Fordham attack error, but a 6-1 Rams run gave the home team a 13-11 lead. The Owls stayed within three points for much of the set after that but weren’t able to make a serious run.
They eventually tied the score at 21-21 thanks to a block by Matautia and sophomore middle back Jennifer Iacobini. A back and forth final few points saw the Owls finally pull away with a 26-24 victory thanks to a timely kill and ace by Matautia, who had another six kills.
Ganes said the team changed their blocking tactics, which he credits for shifting the momentum back in their favor.
“We actually decided to block them cross-court, and send them to our weaker defender which is our right-side defender,” he said.
The Owls once again jumped out to an early lead, 6-2, in the deciding fifth set, but unlike previous efforts Fordham wasn’t able to claw back right away. After a Matautia error put the score at 11-9, the game’s star put down two kills to extend the lead to 13-10. They would close out the set 15-11, taking the match 3-2.
She would finish the set with five kills, leading the match once again. On the night Matautia hit .367, tallied a match-high five aces, narrowly missed on a double-double with nine digs, and had four blocking assists.
Junior outside hitter Elyse Burkert notched 13 kills of her own to go along with a team-leading 20 digs, while sophomore setter Tiffany Connatser dished out 52 assists and doubled that up with 11 digs of her own.
Temple led nearly every category with a .219 hitting percentage, 10 aces, 76 digs and 8.5 team blocks. Fordham’s ultimate undoing was errors, with 56 in all, including 11 blocking errors.
“I thought Fordham made some really big plays when it mattered,” Ganes said. “But the good thing is we didn’t really get that discouraged. We just kept doing what we were supposed to do.”
Temple’s victory gives them a 2-0 series advantage over the Rams, which means a crucial head-to-head tiebreaker with the conference tournament approaching. The two squads are jockeying for the sixth and final playoff spot. Ganes and company effectively have a two game lead over Fordham now with just six games remaining.
“It’s definitely tough because, regardless of what happened the first time one team [is] angry and they want to come back,” Matautia said.
“We definitely went into today’s game talking about how we definitely wanted to win this to help get us to the A-10’s and so we could control our own destiny getting there,” she added.
The Owls head further north following the match as they get set to take on Rhode Island on Sunday, which they defeated to start the A-10 season in straight sets. A win would keep the Owls a game ahead, with the head-to-head tiebreaker over Fordham for the final tournament playoff spot.
Jake Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.