SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Ending in a wild 28-26 fourth set, UCSB (11-6, 2-2) successfully defended its home floor against UC Davis (8-9, 1-3) in four sets (25-23, 21-25, 25-20, 28-26) thanks to superb outings from Rowan Ennis, Chanel Hoffman, and Elizabeth Sheffield on Thursday night.
"We might be one of the teams in the country that has played the most two-point sets this year," Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch noted. "We always know that we can be strong at any time in the match, especially when it's close at the end. I felt confidence with everyone on the floor and on the bench, and we just stayed the course."
Despite recording by far the most swings on the team (39), Hoffman still came through with a .308 hitting performance, marking her third .300-plus match in a row. The junior's efficiency produced a team-high 15 kills, while Ennis came through with 12 kills off a career-high .524 clip.
"Rowan works really, really hard, and that's the first step to being successful," Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. "She works to put herself in good situations and she's really good off one foot behind the setter. With her speed and her effort, she creates opportunities for herself to be open and she was very successful on that tonight."
After scoring five points in the opening set with three kills and two blocks, Ennis never scored fewer than four points the rest of the way.
"I've seen her grow tremendously every single game," Hoffman said of Ennis. "She works very hard in practice and she shows it on the court. And I'm very proud of her for how she's executing right now."
Sheffield checked into the match midway through the first set and made a couple kills to help spark the Gauchos to a 25-23 comeback victory. By the time she got rolling, she was a force at the net both on offense and defense, as she finished with nine kills, a .412 hitting percentage, and a season-high eight blocks. Her performance played the biggest role in the Gauchos out-blocking the Aggies 15-7.
"When she first entered the match, her offense really helped us." Welch said. "She gave us some kills and gave us some offense out of that spot. And as the match went on, she really turned up her blocking. Once she started getting more blocks, you could just see her game come alive, and she was really a sparkplug for us."
Those blocks were never more crucial than in the third set, as she was in on all five of UCSB's blocks including three in a pivotal four-point span. In that sequence, the Gauchos held just a two-point lead at 15-13, but the after the initial block by Sheffield and Hannah Juley, UCSB took off on a 6-2 run to put UC Davis behind for good. And fittingly, it was Sheffield who closed out the set with a kill and a block on back-to-back plays.
In the fourth set, the Gauchos held a lead for the majority of the time and even garnered a 20-16 lead. With UC Davis facing a make-or-break moment, the team made a furious comeback and tied the game at 24-24 after thwarting two Gaucho match points. The Aggies even took a 26-24 lead thanks to a 4-1 run, but Sheffield came through with a clutch kill to send service duties back to UCSB.
"Right before the serve, I told Liz that we're going to get this block," Hoffman said. "And so we served it and did what we said we were going to do."
Playing with the confidence of veterans who had been there before, the junior/senior combo indeed came through with a block, denying Emily Allen of a kill.
With the momentum in the Gauchos hands, they forced Allen's next attack to go wide and were able to finish the hard fought match in four.
When asked about when she knew her team had legitimate depth, Welch said she realized it from the Gauchos' earliest practices. "I could see so much competition in the gym and so many people on different days step up," she said. "That's a luxury we haven't had in past seasons and it's such a great thing because someone can have an off night and they know that somebody else will have their back. That's critical for success in a team sport."
UCSB will be back in the Thunderdome on Saturday night to host rival Cal Poly starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are now available online, over the phone at 805.893.UCSB (8272), and at the Ticketing Office inside the Intercollegiate Athletics Building.