By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA - The third time definitely was a charm for head coach Courtney Draper and her young Bulls.
Valerie El Houssine and Erin Fairs both posted double-doubles to help the USF volleyball team triumph over in-state rival UCF in five sets and give Draper her first win as a Bull on Sunday afternoon at the Corral. The Bulls defeated the Knights, 23-25, 27-25, 25-19, 23-25, 15-14, in the final match of the USF Invitational after dropping their first two against Wisconsin and Creighton.
"I'm really proud of our girls. They wanted this one really bad," Draper said. "The first two matches of the season were hard for them, so it was really fun to come out here and beat Central Florida."
El Houssine made the all-tournament team after posting a team-high 20 kills and 15 digs.
"She is a leader in every sense of the word for this team. I'm really proud of her," Draper said.
Fairs, a freshman, chipped in with a career-high 17 kills to go along with 11 digs in her first match getting to play all six rotations.
"She really played her own back row and I think that helped her get into a rhythm for her front row game as well," Draper said.
The Bulls also got a monster match from junior Andrea Rodriguez Gomez, another all-tournament selection, who posted a career-high 14 kills.
USF secured its first set win of the season on its second try against UCF with El Houssine and Kayla Walton stepping up with five kills apiece.
"It had us on a high and it was really good for us," Fairs said.
The Bulls used their newfound momentum to jump out to a big lead in the third set. Fairs fired up the crowd with five kills during a 10-1 run that put USF ahead, 13-4, while the middle blocker/outside hitter also combined on a key block with Shelbey Bleke. UCF cut its deficit to 19-16, but couldn't match USF's intensity close to the net as Rodriguez Gomez's kill got the Bulls to set point, and they finished it off with a combined block by Rodriguez Gomez and Fairs.
The Knights fired back with a win in the fourth set and USF gained confidence on the comeback trail in the fifth set. Two UCF errors tied things up at 9, freshman Ciara Brown posted the go-ahead kill and the Bulls locked things up with two kills by El Houssine.
Claudia Cabrera helped set things up by recording a game-high 28 digs, while Bleke had her best blocking performance as a Bull with eight. The USF defense held UCF to a hitting percentage of .149 or worse in three of the five sets.
"I really feel like the buy in is happening more and more every day. I just keep telling them the same things and they're executing them a little bit better each time," Draper said.
USF will see how it fares on the road for the first time this season when it plays at the NC State Invitational next weekend. The Bulls face NC State on Friday at 7 p.m. before they play two matches on Saturday against VCU and Kent State.