Temple is heading into the final two weeks of its season looking to finish strong and make a push for an NCAA tournament berth.
The Owls are sixth in their conference, but two and a half games separate them from Southern Methodist for second place. On Friday, Temple will start the final stretch against a Rutgers team that is 0-14 in conference play and 4-24 overall before playing Connecticut (12-17, 3-11 American Athletic Conference) on Sunday.
“We just have to take care of the games we know we can win,” junior middle blocker Jennifer Iacobini said. “Rutgers and UConn, we really have to take care of them.”
In a home match against Rutgers earlier this season, the Owls defeated the Scarlet Knights 3-0 (25-18, 25-16, 25-23). Temple out-aced Rutgers 9-2, with sophomore setter Sandra Sydlik leading the team with four straight aces at a key point in the first set. Sydlik finished with five aces.
Temple also swept Connecticut at home, (25-12, 25-21, 27-25). Freshman middle blocker Kirsten Overton had one of her best games of the season against the Huskies, getting seven kills to only one error.
The most important games on the Owls’ radar, though, are their home matchups with South Florida and Central Florida.
“[Against] UCF and SFU, we lost last time,” Iacobini said, “So we’re looking for a little revenge. We have to come in really strong and just prepare.”
Although the Owls were swept by both Florida teams earlier in the year, the players are confident these upcoming games will be different.
“We will have our home court advantage,” senior right-side hitter Gabriella Matautia said. “I think just being more comfortable with the court maybe [will help]. When we were away, the other gym was really small, or they had home court advantage with people heckling us, and it was dark. It’s just kind of comfort in our area.”
When the Owls played UCF, the Knights had 54 digs to Temple’s 31. Sophomore libero Alyssa Drachslin said she was frustrated with that statistic.
“That game, in general, was not a very good game for us,” Drachslin said. “So it just fuels our fire, for me especially, to pick up the defense on our side and not let a ball drop.”
“When we played them the first time, Central Florida played very well,” coach Bakeer Ganes said. “They did a good job executing. We, on the other hand, did a very poor job executing. So I’m hoping that we’re going to do a better job and they’re going to do a worse job. And if that happens, I think we’ve got a pretty good shot.”
In Temple’s loss to South Florida, blocks were the most significant factor. The Bulls made four solo blocks, while Temple made none. The Bulls also had 15 assisted blocks to Temple’s 4. Otherwise, the game was close, with all three sets being decided by four points or less.
“We just have to work together,” Matautia said. “As long as we play well as a team and really stick together, we can do great things. Our team doesn’t look stacked statistically per player; but altogether, as long as everybody’s playing well, we’ll have a great shot.”
“We need to really stay focused in practices,” senior outside hitter Elyse Burkert said. “And [make] sure we’re getting the most out of them to prepare for the games. And then in game time, we just need to have a lot of energy and confidence in our ability, because we have put a lot of work into this and we are ready.”
The chance to make the NCAA tournament is providing motivation for the Owls.
“I think we’re all really well aware that we actually have a very good shot at getting into the tournament this year,” freshman outside/right-side hitter Caroline Grattan said. “The motivation to win is just a chance of us getting a spot there. So pushing for these next four games, we all just kind of realize that we’re all definitely talented enough to get there.”
“Every time we play we want to win,” Ganes said. “I think we’ve got it in our own hand to finish either second or third. As long as that’s possible we want to try to achieve that. We want to get the maximum out of this team and out of this season for all of us.”
Don McDermott can be reached at email@example.com.