Rowan Ennis
UCSB middle Rowan Ennis hits away from UC Irvine blocker Abby Marjama during Big West volleyball opener at the Thunderdome. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

The Big West women’s volleyball opener was there for the taking for UCSB.

The Gauchos roared out to big leads in the first three sets, got service aces from serving specialist Lexi Rottman and double figure kills from Lindsey Ruddins, Torre Glasker and Charlie Robinson.

But they didn’t get the victory.

UC Irvine rallied from two huge deficits in the first two sets and won the match in four, 25-19, 29-27, 11-25, 26-24, on Tuesday night at the Thunderdome.

It was disappointing start to conference play for the Gauchos (8-5). They could have won in three but were unable to hold leads.

“I thought they just played better in the more critical points than we did,” UCSB coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said of the Anteaters. “We have to take advantage of situations we’re in and step up when things are on the line, and that’s when we didn’t make the play.”

In the first set, Rottman served six straight points to get UCSB off to a 7-0 start. The Gauchos led 13-6 when things started to unravel.

Lindsey Ruddins

Lindsey Ruddins of UCSB hits high over UC Irvine blocker Harlee Kekauoha. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

Down 14-7, the Anteaters (7-6) capitalized on UCSB errors and shaky setting and scored seven straight to tie it at 14-14. They later took a 16-15 lead on a kill by outside hitter Loryn Carter and followed with a big block by Harlee Kekauoha and Sophie Wood to go up 17-15. They never trailed again in the set. 

A crushing kill by Ruddins put the Gauchos up 10-5 in the second set but, again, they allowed UC Irvine to come back. The rally started when UCSB was unable to make a play on a second ball after a terrific dig by libero Emilia Petrachi. A hitting error followed and a miscommunication on the next play allowed a ball to drop between players.

“Early on we were a little rough defensively, but actually we picked that up as the match went on and played pretty steady on the defensive end,” Welch said, “It was more of our offensive execution toward the end of the match that could have made the difference for us had we followed our game plan more.”

Carter and Idara Akpakpa combined on a block and Akpakpa put a middle set away to tie the score at 10-10.

Robinson sided out for the Gauchos before the Anteaters went on a 7-2 run for a 17-13 advantage.

UCSB rebounded as Rowan Ennis recorded a block, Ruddins buried a ball from the back row and Glasker got a kill to put the Gauchos back ahead, 18-17.

Ruddins led all hitters with 23 kills, Glasker had 11 and Robinson 10 for UCSB. Defensively, Petrachi picked up 25 digs, Ruddins had 18 and Glasker and Zoe Fleck added 11 and 10, respectively.

“We had enough going on, we had enough balance,” Welch said.

The Gauchos just needed more consistency to put a team away.

Charlie Robinson

Charlie Robinson of the Gauchos hits down line against UC Irvine blocker Loryn Carter. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

UC Irvine also had good balance. Abby Marjama and Akpakpa each collected 12 kills, Carter contributed nine and Makayla Wolf added eight. Libero Haley DeSales picked up 25 digs.

Wolf took charge for UC Irvine in the middle, scoring on two kills and a block to put the Anteaters up 20-18.

Irvine reached set point at 24-21, but the Gauchos tied the score at 24 after a side out by Glasker, a quick kill from Robinson in the middle and a over-the-net violation by the Anteaters.

A net violation by UC Irvine put the Gauchos at set point (25-24), but Carter sided out for the Anteaters.

The teams went back and forth before UCSB got a bad break at 27-all. The officials missed a touch on a Ruddins cut shot along the net and the ball went out of bounds, giving UC Irvine the point.

A Gaucho hitting error on the next play gave the Anteaters the set, 29-27.

UCSB showed great resiliency after the tough defeat, exploding to a 13-1 lead behind a 10-point serving run by Rottman.

Nicole Omwanghe came off the bench and provided a spark in the middle, blasting four kills on four attempts.

“We needed her today and she came in and provided great blocking and offense, and that was great for us,” said Welch.

Glasker also played big, delivering six kills.

The Gauchos, however, couldn’t keep the momentum going in the fourth set. They fell behind 5-2 and played catch-up the rest of the way. They pulled even three times and managed to take a 22-21 lead on a tip by setter Olivia Lovenberg after a Petrachi dig.

The score was tied again at 23 and 24 before a serving error gave UC Irvine a 25-24 lead. Ruddins had a swing for a side out, but the Anteater blockers got a touch on the ball and Abby Marjama put the set away to end the match and spoil UCSB’s home conference opener.

“We’re right there,” Welch said. “Irvine had a ton returning this year, they’re supposed to be one of the top teams. We know that. We’re right there.  It’s disappointing we couldn’t execute enough plays to get (the win), but we know we can play with anyone in this conference.”

Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Barry Punzal, Sports Editor

— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.