USF volleyball entered its final regular season game with one hand firmly on the AAC East Division title after sweeping FAU 3-0 on Friday.
The Bulls (19-11, 13-6 AAC) beat Rice 3-2 on Wednesday in the Corral to secure the title outright.
Bulls coach Jolene Shepardson said she was emotional seeing her team’s resolve in a closely contested match.
“That makes my heart so full because that’s what I wanted to do for the last couple of years – fight when the pressure’s on, compete, and they really did that today,” Shepardson said.
The Owls (18-11, 12-7 AAC) of the West division came to the Corral with hopes of ruining USF’s celebrations.
The Bulls started the game strong with 19 kills in the first set, almost doubling Rice’s 10.
USF finished the set with a seven-point lead as sophomore outside hitter Buse Hazan provided the winning kill with an assist from junior setter Caroline Dykes.
Dykes passed 1,000 assists in a season for the first time in her career.
She transferred from East Tennessee State to join the Bulls this year.“Going into this season, I knew that my part was going to be to change this program and help influence it to a different path than it was previously taking,” Dykes said.
South Florida struggled in the second set ending 25-12. They went from 19 to four kills and suffered a 13-point deficit.
Rice repeatedly came close to overtaking the score in the third set, tying the score five times. The Owls fought back to equal the score 24-24, forcing the two teams to go over the 25-point set threshold.
Sophomore outside hitter Maria Clara Andrade provided the winning kill making the score 28-26 and leaving the Bulls one set win away from the title.
Rice went on a 6-0 run and led by as much as seven points to take the fourth set 25-18, leveling the game 2-2.
During the last moments of the final set, the Bulls were trailing at 13-12 when a 3-0 run inspired by Hazan ended the game.
Shepardson said she believed in Hazan to take the game-winning kill.
“I think her relentless attitude – helps lead us with that courage because it’s not it’s not easy to take those,” Shepardson said.
Shepardson said there’s a possibility the Bulls will play in a postseason tournament because of their record this year.
The team will find out Sunday if they will be called to the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) tournament.
USF last played in the NIVC in 2018 when they exited in the first round to Georgia Tech.
Shepardson said she wants her team to contend for an NCAA tournament bid next year.
“They’re competitors deep down so they feed off that. They want to be pushed, they want to be challenged,” she said.