By MATT GERHART
Azusa Pacific built its lead with power up front and aggression from beyond the backline. And just when the University of Hawaii at Hilo finally started to gain some steam, it couldn’t hold serve.
Overmatched by a more balanced and efficient — not to mention taller — volleyball opponent again, the Vulcans fell 25-21, 25-16, 25-21 on Monday night at UHH Gym.
Outside hitter Jackie Landers slammed 21 kills with only four errors, and 6-foot-2 freshman middle blocker Ashley Vander Tuig was a one-woman wrecking crew at times on defense with seven kills and three blocks for the Cougars (6-5 Pacific West Conference, 14-7 overall).
“Height is hard to deal with sometimes,” UHH coach Tino Reyes. “You can deal with that with quickness, but if you don’t control the ball, there’s no chance. You can’t run your offense.
“We were OK with (passing and serving). Average, but for us to compete we have to be above average.”
The Vulcans (4-7, 4-13) failed to win a set during their three-match homestand, and they’ve lost four straight overall, all sweeps.
The final contest during the home stint followed the same pattern of the first two — and most of the matches before that. Freshman outside hitter Bria Morgan led all hitters by burying 24 kills, but she was far and away the busiest person in the gym again, taking 60 swings. Senior outside hitter Patty Snel finished with eight kills on 29 attempts and a team-high 13 digs.
Azusa went right at UHH’s main point of attack by often serving Morgan, making her come up with a pass first in order to get a good look at a spike. And when Morgan did all that, she was often going up against the imposing Vander Tuig or a double block.
“We passed well, we kept the ball in play, and one of the things we did well was serve aggressive,” Cougars coach Chris Keife said. “We tried to serve their weaknesses and exploit that. If (Morgan) can do it all, we’ll let her beat us.”
Morgan (10 digs) started off strong with .273 hitting in the first set for 10 kills, but she finished at .183 as the Vuls attacked at a .190 clip.
Led by Landers’ stellar .447 attack percentage, conference newcomer Azusa Pacific hit .346. With Vander Tuig clogging the middle, UHH was outblocked 7-1.
The Cougars, replacing seven seniors off a squad that reached the NAIA quarterfinals last season, won their third straight to finish 3-1 on their first PacWest swing to the islands.
“It been a grind,” Keife said. “Better to do it in Hawaii than anywhere else.”
Things started off smoothly enough for UHH as the team’s split the first 20 points.
But after a kill by Azusa Pacific’s Joy Leinke (five overall) tied the first set 8-8, the Vuls didn’t lead again until the third set when Morgan put down a ball to give UHH a 4-3 edge. However, she followed with a service error, and the problem became contagious. Snel’s kill forged a 7-7 tie a few points later, then she promptly served into the net.
The set was never tied again.
The Vuls had six service errors, three in the third set.
“We didn’t miss a whole lot of serves, but we miss them at the wrong times,” Reyes said. “We kill momentum.”
Landers, tied for second in the league in total kills, took over with six kills from that point as the Cougars hit .429 in the set. They went ahead 14-12 on a Leinke kill and began pulling away, winning 8 of 11 points. Mattie Shelford contributed all five of her kills in the final set, including the clincher.
Sophomore middle blocker Olivia Lane had five kills and freshman setter Jolie Au finished with 30 assists for UHH, which faces one of its biggest tests of the season against first-place BYU-Hawaii (8-0, 13-2) on Friday in Laie, Oahu.