For a few moments, it appeared that UC Santa Barbara hitter Lindsey Ruddins was going to single-handedly carry the Gauchos to a crucial road win at Hawaii.
Fortunately for UH, and most unfortunately for UCSB, Friday night’s match at the Stan Sheriff Center lasted much longer than a few moments.
The Gauchos’ senior hitter had season highs in both kills (27) and swings (80) in hitting .275, but she wore down in the final two sets as UH staged its latest dramatic five-set comeback, 25-19, 22-25, 21-25, 25-18, 17-15. Norene Iosia put it away with her fourth ace of the night on UH’s third match point.
“Dramatic to say the least,” libero Rika Okino said.
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) November 2, 2019
While the 6-foot-2 Ruddins was borderline unstoppable in Set 2 in putting down 13 kills on 24 swings, and effective in Set 3 in helping the Gauchos take a 2-1 sets lead, she had only five kills over the last two sets, on 33 swings spanning those two.
Here’s what Ruddins did in the five sets (kills-errors-swings).
Set 1: 3-2-9
Set 2: 13-1-24
Set 3: 6-0-14
Set 4: 3-2-22
Set 5: 2-0-11
Ruddins, a former teammate of UH’s McKenna Ross at Aliso Niguel (Calif.) High, was placing shots on the money for a while but seemed to struggle with her command late. She finished with nearly half of her team’s total attacks.
UCSB coach Nicole Lantagne Welch did not say that Ruddins — the conference player of the year frontrunner who declined an interview through her coach after the match — wore down late. Her last kill squared it up at 12-all in the nail-biter of the fifth, when there were 13 ties.
“You know, I think we both had opportunities in that fifth set. We just needed to make one play sooner,” Lantagne Welch said. “You’re talking about millimeters at that point in difference. So I’m sure we’ll go back and watch film and there will be a play here, a play there we wish we had handled a little differently. You know, congratulations to Hawaii. Iosia’s an excellent server and she hit a great serve to finish it. Other than that, it was going back and forth … it was a one-point-difference game.”
While Hanna Hellvig was counted on for a career-high 19 kills and Iosia was one kill away from a triple-double (nine kills, 33 assists, 16 digs), Okino was responsible for fielding plenty of Ruddins’ best shots. Some went down directly and some caromed off her. But plenty others she was able to pop sky high for Iosia or Bailey Choy to set cleanly.
Okino, who’s seen her role increase over the course of her final season at UH, finished with 25 digs, nearly double her previous career high of 13 set at UCSB last year.
That was a third of UH’s team total.
“It was completely mental, really. I think it was different tonight for me. It was more of a mind-set that, I dunno, more dialed in I guess,” Okino said. “Because that’s her favorite shot, right where I’m standing. And you know the ball’s coming to you, so that’s half the battle. It’s just putting it up for my teammates to run it down for me.”
Of Ruddins — a three-time All-Big West first-teamer and the conference’s all-time leader on player of the week honors — Okino was complimentary.
“Well, she’s a great player, for sure. Probably one of the best in our conference,” the libero said. “She takes a lot of swings and she’s very successful for them. She’s like their biggest weapon, and defensively we want our blockers to block them, but … our block isn’t our only line of defense. That’s why we have six players, so when two people go up to block, we have four other people to dig that ball.”
On the topic of Okino’s career night, Robyn Ah Mow said postgame that assistant Kaleo Baxter said something to light a fire under the libero.
“It was just a matter of, saying enough is enough. Let’s go,” Okino said of how things swung back to her team by the finish. “And I think everybody started playing their best volleyball, really, and it turned out in our favor.”
And now UH (19-3, 9-2) is positioned to really make it a true three-team race in the Big West, if it can hang a loss on Cal Poly (16-6, 9-1) at 5 p.m. Sunday. UCSB dropped to 19-3 and 9-2.
“This will definitely help carry some momentum into Sunday. And we won’t want to lose (to Cal Poly) twice. We’re hungry,” Okino said.