No. 15 seed Lady Toppers sweep Kennesaw State, advance in NCAA Tournament

Photo courtesy of WKU Athletics

Kaden Gaylord & Drake Kizer

The WKU volleyball team (32-1) played in an environment Diddle Arena has never housed for volleyball on Thursday, as the Lady Toppers notched their NCAA-best 23rd sweep against Kennesaw State (22-9) in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament First Round.

No. 15 seed WKU extended its school-record 28-game winning streak before 4,514 raucous fans, a new attendance record for a volleyball match held in Diddle Arena, and advanced to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament Second Round for just the fourth time ever.

“I talked about our players needing to stay composed, but I found that early in the match, to be honest, I was struggling,” head coach Travis Hudson said about the overwhelming atmosphere.

“I told our players before the match ever started tonight, the outcome really didn’t matter to me … the only thing that was left on my bucket list was to know what it would be like to walk out in Diddle Arena and feel that, and our players gave me that by what they did this year and our fans gave me that by showing up tonight.”

Freshman Paige Briggs tallied 11 kills, six digs and two blocks, while sophomore Katie Isenbarger added two digs and set a new career-high with seven blocks.

Senior Sophia Cerino finished with seven kills, an ace and six blocks, as the Conference USA Tournament champions bested the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament champions in the first-ever NCAA Volleyball Tournament game held in Diddle Arena.

“I’m just so grateful that everyone came out,” Isenbarger said. “My personal feeling just looking around, it was like a dream. I remember when Hallie [Shelton] and I were standing next to each other right as I went out and Hallie was like, ‘Will you pinch me? Because this doesn’t even feel real.’ It was just an amazing atmosphere and there’s nothing like it.”

WKU hit .357 with 38 kills, while the Owls hit .206 with 42 kills. KSU had more assists than the Lady Toppers, 40-37. But WKU outblocked the Owls 10-4, including several blocks in key moments that kept KSU from stealing a set from the Lady Toppers.

“The box score was really misleading,” Hudson said. “We just couldn’t separate. We would get a three, four-point lead and they would be back in it every single time.”

Both teams came out ready to battle, as the Lady Toppers and Owls went back-and-forth trying to gain positive momentum. WKU built a 10-9 lead, and the Lady Toppers then went on a 4-0 run to create a little bit of separation at 14-9.

The Owls then turned the tables on WKU — KSU mounted a momentum-shifting 11-6 run and tied the score at 20-20. The Lady Toppers answered with a 5-3 run of their own, ending up with a hard-fought 25-23 victory in the opening frame.

KSU came out hot in the second set, as the Owls built a 4-0 run that gave them an early 5-2 lead over WKU. The Lady Toppers were able to tie the score at 6-6, but KSU mounted another 4-0 run and forced Hudson to ask for a timeout down 10-6 early.

Isenbarger and Cerino then combined for an impersonation of legendary NBA shot-blocker Dikembe Mutombo, tallying back-to-back blocks to help the Lady Topper eventually tie the second set at 11-11.

The teams continued their back-and-forth battle until the Owls found themselves up 19-17. WKU responded with a 3-0 run, forcing KSU head coach Keith Schunzel to call timeout down 20-19.

KSU was able to notch just one more point against the Lady Toppers — tying the game at 20-20 — before WKU ended the set on a 5-0 run and claimed a 25-20 win in the second frame.

The second set saw 10 tie scores and four lead changes between both teams, and the third frame brought more of the same before WKU used a 7-1 run to reach an 11-7 lead.

The Owls and Lady Toppers traded blows for most of the third set, but WKU maintained a sense of control with a lead that consistently hovered around a two-point margin.

KSU battled with WKU until the very end, tying the final frame at 23-23. But the Lady Toppers wouldn’t be denied, as WKU mounted a 2-0 run to end the third set with a 3-0 match sweep.

KSU closed its 2019 campaign with a hard-fought loss in straight sets after earning the ASUN’s automatic bid and making its second appearance in the last three seasons.

“Again, if people thought we were going to come in here in front of a big crowd and be intimidated they have no idea what we’re about, and they just don’t know what we’re doing,” Schunzel said postgame. “Really happy with our group and bummed at the same time because I thought we could’ve gotten that to more than 3, but we didn’t and we have to live with that.”

Lady Toppers set for rematch against in-state rival Louisville

Following the win, the Lady Toppers will meet Louisville (20-9) in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament Second Round on Friday night.

The Cardinals notched a clean 3-0 sweep over Samford (24-6) in a First Round match just minutes before the Lady Toppers and Owls took John Oldham Court on Thursday night.

“A lot of teams at this time of the year look tired,” Louisville head coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. “I think Western looks like everybody’s jumping about three or four inches higher at this point of the year. They’ve had some young players that have really developed throughout this season and I think they look faster, more powerful and are jumping higher.”

WKU is winless in the all-time series against the Cardinals, including a 3-1 loss on Sept. 6, and the Lady Toppers have never reached the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament.

The WKU volleyball program will now have a chance to rectify both of those blemishes against the Cardinals and junior Anna Stevenson, whose comments at a press conference this week gave WKU some added motivation heading into the long-awaited rematch.

“I just think it’d be kind of fun to be their only two losses on the year,” Stevenson said. “I don’t know, that’s a challenge for them and us. I think we’re both coming into it like excited to compete.”

WKU heard the comment loud and clear, and Cerino said the team is using the statement as motivation to prove doubters wrong.

“We are aware of the comment,” Cerino said. “I’d say just keep saying stuff like that because we want to come out and we want to prove that we’re not going to let it happen again.”

When asked if there will be any extra motivation to play well against Louisville because the Cardinals are the only team that’s been able to defeat WKU during the historic 2019 season, sophomore Lauren Matthews had a quick and simple response: “Most definitely.”

“This is our redemption game, so we’re coming in with all ten toes down,” the 2019 C-USA Player of the Year said.

Match time is set for 7 p.m. in Diddle Arena.

Reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Kaden on Twitter at @_KLG3.

Sports Editor Drake Kizer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Drake on Twitter at @drakekizer_.