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Bulls grounded in winless weekend

Since beginning conference play a little more than a month ago, the USF volleyball team has emerged as a strong contender – opening with a 5-3 record despite struggling with losses outside of the conference.

But that was before Louisville and Cincinnati, two of the Big East’s premiere teams, came to Tampa this past weekend to play. The two opponents squared off against one another for the Big East tournament crown a year ago, and dropped the Bulls (9-14, 5-5) to ninth in the Big East. Only the top eight teams qualify for the Big East tournament.

Friday, a crowd of 400 watched as Louisville (17-6, 9-1) attacked the Bulls in a 3-0 (25-23, 25-14, 25-23) sweep at the USF Campus Recreation Center.

In sets one and three, the Bulls (9-14, 5-5) came out firing. They gained a big lead, but failed to prevent the Cardinals’ comeback thanks to Louisville junior outside hitter Lola Arslanbekova, who posted 13 kills in the match.

Coming into the matchup, Arslanbekova, the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, was the Bulls’ main focus. She is ranked second in the nation in kills per set (5.03).

In the end, the Bulls held Arslanbekova below her average and limited her to a zero hitting percentage in the first set.

“I like how we were playing against her,” Lessinger said. “She got her big kills, but we started making some good adjustments on our block setup against her and I thought we started running down some balls.”

USF freshman Valerie El Houssine led the way for the Bulls, with a match-high 18 kills.

Sunday against Cincinnati, 14 former USF volleyball players were on hand to cheer for the Bulls, who wore pink uniforms for a “Dig Pink” match, a national initiative devoted to promoting breast cancer awareness spearheaded by the Side-Out Foundation.

However, the Bulls’ tough weekend continued as the Bearcats (18-8, 8-2) finished what the Cardinals started, with a 3-1 (25-17, 26-28, 25-19, 25-21) win.

“I really wish we could have came out this game with a win in front of the former players,” Lessinger said. “Every alumni has touched this program in some way, shape or form. We just have to work on staying focused and executing.”

After a poor first set, the Bulls came charging back to win the second with a well-balanced offensive and defensive game plan, ending USF’s six set losing streak.

Yet the Bearcats regained their confidence, as they edged the Bulls in the last two sets to close out the game.

“This was not how we expected this weekend to end,” Lessinger said. “All we can do is keep practicing and learn from our mistakes.”

Lessinger is still two wins shy of reaching her 100-win mark, as the Bulls prepare for another set of home matches against Villanova and Georgetown this weekend.