Throughout the season the Owls have preached they must start strong and end strong in every match.
Temple proved it Friday night when they hosted Atlantic 10 Conference rival Xavier.
Under second-year coach Bakeer Ganes, the Owls made their biggest statement of the season, upsetting the favored Musketeers in five tough sets. A back-and-forth match that saw 12 lead changes ended, somewhat anticlimactically, on a serving error by Xavier.
“I can’t even explain it,” junior outside hitter Gabriella Matautia said. “It happened and I felt so full of different emotions.”
“It’s definitely a big upset,” Ganes said. “It’s a Top 2 team in the conference. I’m really proud of the way the girls on my team competed today.”
Matautia made the biggest statement of all, on a night that was largely meant for her, Hawaiian Night. The Hawaiian native had consistent success from the weak side with powerful swings, finishing with 18 kills, 12 digs and two aces. She had extra motivation playing in front of her dad for the first time in her collegiate career.
“Having my family here and having Hawaiian Night definitely gave me a little boost,” Matautia said.
Temple opened the match with a hard-fought 25-22 first-set victory, only managing to pull away after a 22-22 tie thanks to two costly Musketeers errors and a kill by junior outside hitter Elyse Burkert. Burkert finished the night with 16 kills and 14 digs, one of three Owls with a double-double.
The second set was equally as intense, with an engaged crowd of 317 spurring on the home team. The set featured five lead changes as neither squad was able to pull away until the end when Xavier got several clutch kills to win 25-20.
Things took a turn in favor of the Owls in the third set, however, as they jumped out to their largest lead of the night at 15-7 thanks to a .355 hitting percentage. Xavier made a few small runs but never got close as sophomore middle hitter Jennifer Iacobini recorded two of her match-high four aces and Temple walked away with a convincing 25-17 victory.
“The serving was a huge part of our game plan, and [Iacobini] did a really good job,” Ganes said.
But just as quickly as Temple took control, Xavier fought right back, jumping out to a 4-0 lead to open the fourth set and never looking back. The Owls dropped the set 25-14 and looked lost heading into the final set.
“The fourth set, we were just not in it,” Matautia said.
The final set appeared to be getting away from the Owls at the start, as they quickly fell behind 5-2. But Iacobini served, trailing 5-3, and forced Xavier to make mistakes off bad passes, allowing the home team to make a 5-0 run.
Burkert, who was silent much of the match, caught fire. She relied primarily on finesse shots in the early sets but mixed up power with roll shots to notch seven kills in the final set to keep the pressure on Xavier.
“Sometimes if I get blocked I don’t want to get blocked so I try to think of other ways to do [get the kill],” Burkert said. “The funny thing is it wasn’t very successful when I was doing it until the end when I started hitting and then I was successful.”
Temple pushed their lead to 14-10 thanks to Burkert and several untimely Xavier miscues, which uncharacteristically had 47 unforced errors on the night. And with the Owls up 14-11 it all came down to one final, anticlimactic mistake, a service error by Xavier junior outside hitter Sarah Brown.
“I’m not sure if they really beat themselves, because you’ve got to put a team in position so they can make unforced errors,” Ganes said. “A team like that, we can’t compete with them if they’re in system just because they’re so powerful.”
The Owls were undersized at every position, and lost in nearly every major offensive and defensive category except unforced errors.
“So the stats only tell you one side of the story, it doesn’t tell you how the team competed,” Ganes said. “I think today you truly saw a team competing together.”
The match was the Owls third A-10 game of the season. Both Temple and Xavier entered the night 2-0, with the win keeping the Owls atop the conference standings heading into an even tougher match against No. 20 Dayton on Saturday.
“This game is huge, we’re so happy,” Burkert said. “It gives us confidence just in ourselves. It has us really kind of rolling right now.”
Jake Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at jakeadams520.