WKU Volleyball Advances to Sweet 16 with Upset Win vs #15 Washington State

OMAHA, Neb. – No. 18 WKU Volleyball secured the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 with a five-set win over 15th seeded No. 17 Washington State on Thursday night. In their first five-set match of the season, the Hilltoppers hit .300 while holding the Cougars to a .245 clip.

WKU took a 2-0 lead in the match before Washington State responded with two sets of its own to force a decisive fifth set. The Hilltoppers claimed the first two frames 25-22 and 25-20 before dropping the next two 21-25 and 17-25.

“I’m almost at a loss for words, I’m just so crazy proud of these kids,” shared WKU head coach Travis Hudson. “That was one roller coaster of a match. To be in control and up 14-8 in the third set and for Washington State to come roaring back and to have to just find a way in that fifth set. I was much more concerned about mentality in that fifth set than I was about actual volleyball, and we were able to come out and find our aggressiveness and we had just enough to win this thing.”

The decisive final set was all that stood in the way of the Tops’ first-ever trip to the Sweet 16. Back in both 2017 and 2019, the Hilltoppers also went five sets for a shot at setting program history but came up short in both. However, the third time was the charm as WKU outlasted the Cougars. The record-setting win didn’t come easy though as the Red and White had to withstand two lead changes and seven times in the final frame along.

With the score knotted at 10-10, Lauren Matthews rotated back into the front row and took over. She would tally three kills across the Tops’ 5-0 run to close out the match. WKU struck for 11 kills against just one error in the final frame for a .435 hitting percentage.

“I don’t even know how to feel,” shared Lauren Matthews. “When the ball dropped I was kind of in shock, like: ‘We just did that.’ I don’t know how to feel right now, yeah, that’s where I’m at.”

“There are no words for that,” Kayland Jackson opened. “I mean, it’s amazing. We all had no words, we were basically choking out there and crying. There was nothing to say but just pure joy and happiness. We’re so excited to be here and we were ready to play.”

“It’s just special, but look, this program has been built on every single kid who’s ever put that uniform on,” continued Hudson. “And it seems like every group that comes in finds a way to put another brick on that house that’s being built. The foundation was built before I even became a head coach, and there are so many kids who have had so much to do with the growth of this program and there’s a standard that’s been set in this program. So when kids come in, they try to live up to that standard and they try to do things that have never been done and that’s getting harder and harder to accomplish every year. But this is a special one. This is something that’s probably not supposed to happen at Western Kentucky in the sport of women’s volleyball. But these kids are special, they’re talented, and they believe in each other, and that made it turn out pretty special for us at the end of the day.”

WKU improves to 23-0 on the season with the win and 2-0 against ranked teams on the year. The Hilltoppers are also 2-0 against Power 5 teams, also owning a win over West Virginia. WKU joins Kentucky and Louisville for a total of three teams representing the Commonwealth in the Sweet 16.

All-time, WKU is now 6-12 in the NCAA Tournament. Thursday’s match was the first win in the Tournament that wasn’t a sweep.

WKU will get another shot at the Wildcats on Sunday as [2] No. 2 Kentucky is the Hilltoppers’ next opponent. First serve in Sunday’s match will go up at 9 p.m. CT and air on ESPN2.

Fifteenth-seeded Washington State closed the 2020-21 campaign with an 11-5 record. The Hilltoppers avenged the lone prior meeting against the Cougars in program history, a four-set loss in 2018 from Bowling Green.

Matthews led three Hilltoppers into double-digit kills with 20 to go along with a .357 attack rate and four blocks. Paige Briggs tallied her 13th double-double of the year, racking up 17 kills (.279), 14 digs, two blocks, an assist and an ace.

“Obviously, we’re a really balanced team, and we get contributions from a lot of places,” Hudson added. “But I said last week in practice, if we’re going to beat a team that’s the quality of Washington State, Lauren Matthews and Paige Briggs have to play like stars. They just do. In big matches like that, there’s going to be a lot of focus on them, but their will has to be stronger and they have to go out and make plays. And those two were just absolutely spectacular tonight, and in that fifth set we made it pretty simple offensively for Nadia. We said: ‘Get it to Lauren. Get it to Paige.’ And those kids came up big for us.”

“I just knew I needed to raise up and be aggressive,” added Matthews. “A couple weeks ago Travis said that if we wanted to beat Washington State it’s basically up to me and Paige offensively, and we need to raise up and play fearlessly. So that’s just what I did and the outcome was pretty nice.”

Kayland Jackson also turned in 10 kills to accompany her match-high five blocks.

“When you don’t perform well for your team, obviously you feel awful,” began Jackson. “And I knew I didn’t perform well for my team at all last night – I mean I hit negative. So, I knew this was a huge game and I just had to come out and do what I needed to do to get us where we are now. I’m proud of my team for holding me up the night before – because they definitely did – and I just knew it was my job as a senior, especially, to come out here and raise up [my play] to help us get to the Sweet 16.”

Hallie Shelton registered 14 digs, four assists, three aces and a kill. Logan Kael joined her in double digits at 13 to go along with an assist and an ace.

Katie Isenbarger added nine kills, four blocks, three digs and an ace while hitting at a .444 rate.

Nadia Dieudonne facilitated the Tops to a .300 clip while racking up 55 assists, four digs, three kills, two blocks and an ace.

The Hilltoppers recorded eight aces across the match and 11 blocks.

“How I feel right now is hard to describe, to be honest,” shared Hudson. “This is all fairy-tale stuff for me and our program. We’ve worked so hard. I say this every year, people think at Western Kentucky we just put a uniform on and go win a conference championship. But it’s so difficult to win championships in Conference USA and so just to get the chance to play in this NCAA Tournament is a remarkable accomplishment in any given year, I don’t care how many times we’ve done it before. To be back in this tournament, to be back in the first round and now to have found a way to beat a seeded team and get to the Sweet 16 round is just something that’s pretty magical and will stay with this program for a long time.”