WKU dominates Notre Dame in first round of NCAA Tournament

Clay Manlove

LEXINGTON — It was almost as if it was just another Conference USA match for WKU.

In Friday’s first round match-up of the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Toppers put together one of their best all-around performances of the season on their way to a 3-0 sweep (25-16, 25-18, 25-22) over Notre Dame.

From the first serve to the final point, WKU took the 12th-ranked defense in the nation on a joy ride and left the Fighting Irish with no answers to whatever the Lady Toppers threw at them.

“I think we were really calm and ready to play at the beginning,” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said. “That is a really good, well-coached Notre Dame team and to jump out on them 7-0 in that first set, that is uncommon. I think our experience in this tournament is something that paid big dividends tonight.”

The Lady Toppers made a statement straight out of the gates, jumping out to a 7-0 lead in the first set and not giving an inch from thereon out until the end of the third set.

“We always say win to 10 and I think by establishing that goal early on, that it helps in the long run because we were up with the advantage and we can let a few points,” sophomore libero Emma Kowalkowski said. “They earned a lot so they can take those. We have our win to 10.”

The only real threat that the Fighting Irish (22-10) posed to the Lady Toppers came in the third set, when the Lady Toppers had the match seemingly well under wraps but led only 23-22 before a pair of kills by Alyssa Cavanaugh sent WKU to tomorrow evening’s region final.

“WKU was good. They have the ability to pressure. They dug a lot of balls. They run a good offense,” Notre Dame head coach Jim McLaughlin said. “They can set the middle third, put a lot of pressure wing blockers who are good and they didn’t make many errors. And then when we kind of got it going a little bit, found a little rhythm, (Alyssa Cavanaugh) took three really good swings at the end of game three.”

Throughout the evening, nothing seemed to provide more fuel to the fire for the Lady Toppers (31-3) than the very obvious presence of their fan base. Hundreds of the WKU faithful made the trip from Bowling Green to Lexington to watch the Lady Toppers finally play an NCAA Tournament match in their home state.

“We could not do anything without our fans,” Cavanaugh said. “They took their time to travel two and a half hours. We had a fan bus that Western got together and that just means everything. We could hear them the entire time and that just created the atmosphere for us to want to win.”

WKU led by four at 15-11 in the first set before Cavanaugh sparked a 5-0 run with a kill and the Lady Toppers eventually took the first set 25-16.

Notre Dame tied things up at 11-11 in the second set before the Lady Toppers scored 11 of the next 13 points to eventually take a 25-18 win in the second set.

Cavanaugh led the Lady Toppers with 18 kills while Sydney Engle followed up with 11 kills on a .579 hitting percentage while also adding 13 digs. Lucas tallied 41 assists on the evening while Kowalkowski led the Lady Toppers with 19 digs.

“We always joke around that [Kowalkowski] is on the floor more than she is up in the air,” Engle said. “She was touching everything we needed her to. She was digging with control, which made it a lot easier for our hitters. She was just doing what she does best.”

Freshmen Hallie Shelton and Darby Music both added 17 and six digs, respectively, in their return to their native city of Lexington.

Sydney Kuhn and Jemma Yeadon led Notre Dame with 11 kills each while Caroline Holt served up 30 assists. Ryann DeJarld had 16 kills to lead the Irish on defense.

With the win, the Lady Toppers advance to play Kentucky tomorrow evening at 7:00 pm ET in the Lexington Region final. The Wildcats advanced with a 3-0 sweep of East Tennessee State on Friday evening.

“It’s hard to get to this tournament and Western Kentucky had never been to this tournament prior to 2002 and we’re in this tournament for the eleventh time since then,” Hudson said. “It’s a hard thing to get here and certainly an even harder thing to advance. And we know we have our work cut out for us tomorrow, but what I know about our kids is they’re going to go out there and lay it on the line.”


Reporter Clay Manlove can be reached at (270) 724-9620 or at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ctmanlove58.