#19 WKU Volleyball Claims C-USA Championship in Win over #24 Rice
HATTIESBURG, Miss. – No. 19 WKU Volleyball secured an automatic bid to the 2020-21 NCAA Tournament Bubble with Saturday’s 3-1 win over No. 24 Rice in the Conference USA Tournament Championship. The Hilltoppers kept their perfect season intact with a 25-20, 25-19, 21-25, 25-22 win over the Owls. WKU is now 6-0 in Conference USA Tournament Championship matches since joining the league prior to the 2014 campaign.
“What a day, what a match. Nothing was surprising to me about this match,” shared head coach Travis Hudson. “You knew it was going to be an absolute slugfest. I guess maybe the only thing that was surprising is that it didn’t end up in five sets – it seems like it normally does when we play Rice. What courage by our team. We were playing really well early and then Rice raised their level and we had to just find a way to make plays at the end and we did … It was two very complete teams playing against each other today, and when you’re in those situations it just comes down to little things and we pride ourselves on doing those little things really well.”
With Saturday’s 3-1 win, the Hilltoppers now own a 63-4 record by set, improving to 21-0 on the season. No 24 Rice sits at 16-5 and will find out Sunday if they’ll continue their season in Omaha.
Of the six C-USA Tournament championships the Hilltoppers have played in, they’ve downed Rice in four of those meetings. The 2020-21 Championship is the first time the match did not go five sets. The Hilltoppers are now 8-2 against Rice since joining the league and 8-3 all-time.
“This one has been really special to me,” continued Hudson. “I think it’s kind of bringing things full-circle with me a little bit. I got pretty emotional after the match because, you know, when we joined Conference USA seven years ago or whenever it was, that first year the conference tournament was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and I had a little freshman hitter named Alyssa Cavanaugh that was on that team. She was just a little green freshman, her and Jess Lucas and Sydney Engle, they were all freshman. And we rolled in here and found a way to win that tournament in our first year in the league. And I’ve felt her presence a lot down here this weekend and it was really special to win again in this city.”
Saturday’s contest marked the second-straight C-USA Championship with two ranked teams in the title game – the only two times in league history.
No. 24 Rice struck for an early 2-0 lead to open championship play but a 3-0 run would give the Tops a 5-4 lead. Back-and-forth play saw the squads tied at 15-15 and 18-18. Katie Isenbarger notched the first two blocks of the match to tie things up at 13-13 and give the Hilltoppers a 17-16 lead. A 3-0 WKU run pushed the Tops ahead 21-18 to force a Rice timeout and WKU would score three more out of the break to a 6-0 run off the serving of freshman Cameron Mosley. After a slow start, Kayland Jackson struck for two kills in WKU’s last four points, including the final tally for the 25-20 win.
With a 1-0 lead in the match, WKU’s sets won streak extended to 22-straight.
Set two saw the Hilltoppers get on the board first and work out to a 10-7 lead off an Avri Davis kill. The frame’s final tie came at 15-15 and soon after Rice would call timeouts trailing 19-16 and 22-18. The Hilltoppers would close the set with a 25-19 win off a Davis kill as their streak grew to 23-consecutive sets won. The Hilltoppers held the C-USA Player of the Year Nicole Lennon to just two kills in the frame as Rice was held to a .219 rate collectively.
Rice scored first in set three before WKU pushed out to a 6-3 lead. The Owls fought back and would be the first to double digits before taking a 12-9 lead to force the first of two Hilltopper timeouts in the frame. WKU responded to knot things at 15-15 but a 4-0 Rice run created too much separation for the Tops to overcome as Rice ended their sets won streak with the 25-21 win to force a fourth frame.
The Owls scored the opening point of the fourth frame as well before the sides traded points. A Nadia Dieudonne joust kill gave the Tops a 3-2 lead that would stretch to 6-3. A few points later, Rice struck for a 5-0 and 6-1 run and pushed out to a 16-10 advantage. The Owls owned a six-point lead as late at 18-12 before a 3-0 Hilltopper run forced a timeout by Rice. The first to 20, Rice still led by four at 21-17 but the Red and White closed the match on a 7-1 run that included three kills, three blocks and an ace.
“It says we’re really experienced, more than anything else,” added Hudson. “That’s one of the things we had over Rice was experience, they had a lot of young kids on the court and we’ve got kids that are experienced, that trust one another and know that if there’s points left on that scoreboard then we’re still in it. We’re a really good defensive team and we know at any time – the way we serve the ball too – we can make a little bit of a run and we made some very timely runs at the end of sets today.”
“We’ve always just been a team that never gets shot down, we never hang our heads low,” shared Hallie Shelton. “Like this last set we were consistently down like five points, and to the crowd it might have seemed like we were just going to let it drop. But in our hearts and in our heads we knew that we were going to keep trucking and keep fighting on and I think we’re kind of known for that. We just stick together like I said and we get it down, and I’m so proud of how we clinched the ending of that.”
Just like the 2019 Tournament Championship, Matthews closed the match with a block to secure the title.
“It feels pretty good, especially the way it ended,” said Matthews. “It’s kind of unbelievable and mind-blowing that Hallie was serving once again and [I had] the same block. It was like déjà vu.”
WKU saw three Hilltopper finish with double-digit kills led by Matthews’ 20 (.500%). Paige Briggs racked up 11 kills to accompany her 15 digs for her 12th double double of the season. Katie Isenbarger registered 10 kills (.500%) to go along with three solo blocks.
Logan Kael joined Briggs with double-digit digs, recording 13. Shelton would add five digs, an assist and an ace.
“Rice is so, so good, as Travis said,” shared Shelton. “They’re such a high-caliber team and I’m surprised this match didn’t go to five like he said. They really gave us a fight and that’s definitely going to prepare us for the NCAA Tournament because the only type of teams there are going to be high-caliber teams, so I think this was a great ending. Kudos to them for an awesome match and they really prepared us for next week.”
Dieudonne led the Hilltoppers to a .309 hitting percentage with 52 assists to go along with eight digs, a kill and a solo block.
“It feels great,” added Briggs. “I’m so proud of my team. Those games are what we play for, like the tight matches, they’re so fun. So just playing as a team and sticking together, I just can’t say how proud I am.”