No. 19 WKU’s win over ranked team is 1st since 2017

WKU’s Logan Kael (18) and Katie Isenbarger (20) celebrate a 3-0 victory over Marshall on October 6, 2019 in Diddle Arena.

Kaden Gaylord

The WKU volleyball team (26-1, 12-0 C-USA) walked into the Lone Star State last weekend in search of two more Conference USA road victories, and the Lady Toppers answered the bell.

Head coach Travis Hudson’s squad prevailed in hostile territory, defeating North Texas (15-10, 9-4 C-USA) 3-1 in the North Texas Volleyball Center on Friday night and knocking off then-17th ranked Rice (22-2, 11-1 C-USA) 3-2 on Senior Day in Tudor Fieldhouse on Sunday afternoon.

No. 19 WKU was already one of two programs in the nation with a 20-match winning streak this season, but the Lady Toppers stretched that streak to 22 with two more wins.

By defeating Rice, WKU picked up its first win over a ranked opponent since a 3-0 sweep at No. 25 Ohio State on Sept. 15, 2017, and moved to 7-17 all-time against ranked opponents.

A five-set WKU victory in Houston also snapped Rice’s 20-match home winning streak, which was the third-longest mark in the nation. WKU has now ended three of the top-10 longest home winning streaks in the country throughout the 2019 season.

“I think when everybody looked at this matchup and saw it coming; it was fitting that it went five, it was fitting that it was 16-14,” Hudson said in a release following the Rice match. “If we play them 10 times, we’re probably going to each win five of them. It’s two very good teams. But, our young kids just have a specialness about them. They’re not going to back down. Even in sets three and four when Rice put it to us pretty good, we didn’t stop playing, Rice just really raised their level. So, I think it was a great showcase for Conference USA volleyball, and I hope that both of us can put that on display again as we move forward into December.”

The Lady Toppers started their most difficult weekend slate to date against the Mean Green in Denton, Texas, on Friday night.

WKU lost a set for the first time since dropping one at Florida Atlantic (13-10, 7-5 C-USA) on Oct. 11, but dominated the first and third set to take the win.

WKU ended with 61 kills compared to 47 from the Mean Green. The Lady Topper posted a .395 hitting percentage while keeping UNT to a .177 mark. Freshman Paige Briggs had 21 kills and 11 digs, while Matthews posted 19 kills and seven blocks for WKU.

“I really saw some grit out of our team tonight,” Hudson said in a release. “North Texas responded in the second set as we knew they would. Andrew is making adjustments that we had to keep track of. Our kids continued to grind. In that fourth set, we separated ourselves by a lot of different kids making plays which was awesome to see.”

WKU then traveled to Houston for a highly anticipated matchup — the first meeting with a fellow ranked conference opponent in program history — against the Owls on Sunday afternoon.

The Lady Toppers won the first two sets, but Rice claimed the next two and pushed the match into a fifth and final set. Rice went up 9-6 in the decisive frame, inching closer to a final win.

WKU then went on a 3-0 scoring run to tie the game, and the two teams traded points from there. Briggs put the Lady Toppers up 15-14, which set up senior Sophia Cerino to end the game when she recorded one final kill in a match that saw 38 ties and 13 lead changes.

The Lady Toppers had four players end the game with double-digit kills. Briggs had 11 kills and 10 digs, Matthews tallied 17 kills and five blocks, junior Kayland Jackson recorded 10 kills and Cerino added 16 kills and three aces in the team’s five-set victory.

“That’s what we’ve been fighting for all year is to be a complete team,” Hudson said in a release. “There’s been nights when maybe Lauren Matthews has carried us or Paige [Briggs] has carried us, but you don’t get to an elite level with one or two players. Tonight, it was different kids at different times, and we needed every bit of it.”

Following another dominant weekend, the Lady Toppers will wrap up C-USA play and conclude their regular season slate in Diddle Arena against Louisiana Tech (13-13, 3-9 C-USA) on Thursday and Alabama-Birmingham (12-13, 4-8 C-USA) on Sunday.

WKU is 13-7 all-time against the Lady Techsters since Oct. 2, 1992. WKU has won the last eight matchups and is undefeated against LA Tech since its inception into C-USA.

The Lady Toppers haven’t dropped a set to the Lady Techsters since being in C-USA, as the last time WKU lost a set to LA Tech was during a 3-1 WKU win in 2000.

WKU will then host UAB for their Senior Day festivities, as seniors Emma Kowalkowski and Cerino will both play their final matches in Diddle Arena.

The Lady Toppers have already faced off once this season, with WKU torching the Blazers for a clean 3-0 sweep on the road in Birmingham, Alabama, on Oct. 25.

WKU didn’t give up more than 16 points in a set during that contest, and the Lady Toppers also posted their best hitting percentage game of the season with an eye-popping .458 mark.

Game time is set for 6 p.m. Thursday and noon on Saturday.

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