No. 19 WKU topples No. 21 Rice, claims 5th C-USA tournament championship

Photo courtesy of Maria Lysaker/Conference USA

Kaden Gaylord

The WKU volleyball team claimed its fifth Conference USA Tournament crown on Sunday afternoon, as the Lady Toppers defeated No. 21 Rice 3-2 for the second time this season and secured an automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

(1) WKU improved to 31-1 overall against host team (2) Rice, and the No. 19 Lady Toppers also added another win to their school-record 27-game winning streak in Tudor Fieldhouse in Houston.

“This was another unbelievable match against Rice; what a showcase for Conference USA,” head coach Travis Hudson said in a postgame release. “I wonder if we play them 10 times, if we wouldn’t end up in a fifth set every time. Our kids went out there and made plays at the end to get us over the top. This was two terrific teams going at it with neither one backing down.”

The Lady Toppers, who also claimed an outright C-USA regular season title by sweeping Alabama-Birmingham in Diddle Arena on Nov. 16, will now make their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance after winning their fifth C-USA tournament title in six years.

WKU has “already submitted a bid” to host first and second round NCAA Tournament games, according to a tweet posted by WKU athletic director Todd Stewart on Sunday.

{{tncms-inline account=”Todd Stewart” html=”<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">We have proactively already submitted a bid (great job by Craig Biggs) to host NCAA Volleyball Tournament 1st and 2nd round games and are ready to roll. If 31-1 and top 20 in coaches poll and RPI isn’t enough to host, I’m not sure what is!</p>— Todd Stewart (@ToddStewartWKU) <a href="https://twitter.com/ToddStewartWKU/status/1198703756784918528?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">November 24, 2019</a></blockquote>” id=”https://twitter.com/ToddStewartWKU/status/1198703756784918528″ type=”twitter”}}

The Owls finished as the conference tournament runner-up after defeating both (7) Texas-El Paso and (6) Texas-San Antonio 3-1 over the weekend. Rice finished its 2019 campaign at 26-3 overall and will likely receive an NCAA Tournament invitation as an at-large team.

WKU posted a .306 hitting percentage, five different Lady Toppers totaled 10 or more kills and Rice was held to a .230 hitting clip.

The Lady Toppers accumulated 71 kills compared to 62 from Rice, but the Owls stayed close by matching WKU in service aces, 7-7.

Sophomore Lauren Matthews had 21 kills and seven blocks, while junior Kayland Jackson had 10 kills, three blocks and three digs.

Senior Sophia Cerino added 12 kills, four aces and six digs, while sophomore Katie Isenbarger had 11 kills, four digs and a block.

Matthews brought home C-USA Tournament MVP honors for her efforts, while Cerino, junior transfer Nadia Dieudonne and freshman Paige Briggs all joined her on the All-Tournament Team.

“Every single one of them earned that recognition,” Hudson said in a postgame release. “What I like is that they all do things beyond what shows up offensively. Lauren Matthews is leading the NCAA in hitting percentage, but I thought her impact in this match came from blocking and certainly ending the match with a block.”

Both teams set the tone for the match with how the first set started.

Rice went up 4-0 early before WKU mounted a 5-0 scoring run to take the lead. The teams then traded points until WKU created some separation with an 8-1 scoring run.

The Lady Toppers then built a 5-1 run and claimed a 25-17 win in the opening set. WKU held the Owls to a .028 hitting percentage and forced 10 attack errors during the first frame.

Rice flipped the script in the second set by jumping out to an early 10-5 advantage. The Owls didn’t give up their lead for the rest of the set, taking a page out of the Lady Topper playbook by hitting three service aces compared to only one from WKU during the frame.

The Rice defense took over during the second period by holding the WKU offense to a .121 hitting percentage compared to its .269. This deficiency proved to be more than WKU could overcome, as Rice built a 4-0 run and evened the match with a 25-18 set win.

Fighting for any edge in momentum, both teams opened the third set by trading points blow for blow. Neither Rice nor WKU could create any distance from the other early on — the Owls and Lady Toppers split the first 28 points scored and ended up tied at 14-14.

The teams kept trading every point until Rice took a 22-20 lead and forced WKU to call for a timeout. WKU then battled back, tied the game at 23-23 and caused Rice to take a timeout.

Rice took the 24-23 lead after the stoppage, but Cerino tied it back up at 24-24 and forced the win-by-two rule to take effect. Rice and WKU continued to throw jabs, as neither team could capitalize when they went up by one.

Tied at 27-27, WKU called upon Matthews to bring it home. She answered by notching back-to-back kills and giving the Lady Toppers a key 29-27 win in the third set.

“We knew coming in that this game was going to be a challenge,” Matthews said in a release. “We knew we’d need to stay the course, do what we were told, go through our progressions and just stay locked in during the game.”

Nothing changed going into the fourth set — neither team built a lead larger than two points early on and the schools were tied at 19-19 after the first 38 points were tallied.

WKU then jumped out to a 21-19 lead, giving the Lady Toppers the two-point cushion they desperately needed.

The Lady Toppers continued to push Rice, building a solid 23-20 advantage and forcing the Owls to ask for a timeout.

WKU went up 24-21, but the Owls battled back to tie it at 24-24. Rice gained the advantage point by going up 25-24, and the Lady Toppers were forced to call their own late timeout.

After the break, Rice capped off its heroic comeback. The Owls scored the last point of the frame and took a 26-24 win in the fourth period to force the match into an inevitable fifth and final set.

The teams were tied at 4-4 early in the fifth set before WKU went on a 3-0 scoring run to take the lead at 7-4.

The Lady Toppers then took firm control and seized momentum, forcing Rice to use its final timeout after a hitting error by the Owls made the score 12-7 in favor of WKU.

But it was too little, too late for Rice — WKU went on to score three of the next five points, allowing the Lady Toppers to claim a 15-9 win in the decisive set and a 3-2 match win.

Following the victory, WKU won’t officially learn its postseason fate for one week, as the NCAA Tournament bracket will be announced on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 1.

The 64-team tournament will be made up of best-of-five set matches in a single-elimination format.

Conference champions qualify automatically and comprise half of the NCAA Tournament field. The other 32 tournament teams will be at-large selections chosen based on their overall résumés.

The top 16 teams will be seeded on a national basis, while the remaining 48 teams will be placed in the bracket following bracketing policies approved by the NCAA Division I Competition Oversight Committee, according to an article by Michella Chester.

The committee will avoid conference matchups in the first and second rounds of the tournament when pairing teams.

The first round of the NCAA Tournament, which will feature 32 games at 16 different sites, is scheduled for Dec. 5-6.

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