Lady Toppers cruise to championship match with sweep of Southern Miss

Clay Manlove

After coming out ‘tight’ on Friday afternoon, WKU returned to playing its style of volleyball on Saturday afternoon in a 3-0 sweep (25-21, 25-18. 25-20) over Southern Miss, advancing to tomorrow’s championship match.

The Lady Toppers showed up to play on defense, picking up 58 digs and holding a high-flying Golden Eagle offense with an average .228 clip to a .118 hitting percentage.

“All year long, this team has been sick of hearing me say that ‘if we want to be great we have to defend ‘” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said. “We just held an outstanding Southern Miss team to a .118 hitting percentage by executing in all three phases on defense. We were really locked in on defense.”

Although falling behind by as much as four in two of the three sets, the Lady Toppers maintained their focus and fought back to oust Southern Miss from the Conference USA Volleyball Championship.

“I never had any doubt that we would lose our energy, or focus or our competitiveness because it’s tournament time,” senior Sydney Engle said. “I think that we were still engaged, it’s just some things weren’t falling our way. We just needed to keep doing what we usually do and it goes in our favor.”

The Lady Toppers didn’t quite play up to their usual standards on offense, recording a .264 hitting percentage as opposed to their season average of .338. However, Alyssa Cavanaugh and Jessica Lucas came up big as Cavanaugh racked up 17 kills and Lucas served up 38 assists.

“When the lights come on, I always try to be ready,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s things I need to improve on; I’m going to try to lower my errors and raise my hitting percentage. It falls a lot on our team. Jessica Lucas puts the ball right where I need it to be.”

The Golden Eagles jumped out to 6-3 lead in the first set before the Lady Toppers (29-3) used a 4-0 run to take charge with a 12-10 advantage. WKU built its lead to 20-16 after a Southern Miss attack error before winning the set 25-21.

The Lady Toppers took advantage of a 17-9 lead in the second set to hold off a Golden Eagle rally and win game two 25-18.

Southern Miss used a 4-0 run midway through the third set to gain a 13-10 lead over the Lady Toppers, but WKU went on a 7-0 run of their own on their way to a 25-20 win to seal the match.

Cavanaugh’s 17 kills led all players while Lucas led all players with her 36 assists. Engle led the Lady Toppers with 14 digs while Hallie Shelton tacked on nine more.

“We try to go out and create an atmosphere where we just have fun,” Cavanaugh said. “I think we got all of our jitters out yesterday when we were a little tight. I think we came in a little more confident and ready to bring it today.”

Kylie Gandy led Southern Miss (20-12) with 10 kills while Chandler Marshall added nine kills. Natalie Druhan had 10 digs for the Golden Eagles while Alexis Coombs led all players with six blocks.

The Lady Toppers welcomed another exciting turnout of fans into Diddle Arena, which Hudson believes played a bigger part than some may think.

“I can’t say enough about the people that have turned out for the Conference USA tournament,” Hudson said. “This isn’t part of the season ticket package; these are people that have come to support these kids in this moment. I need everyone who comes to watch them play to know that it means the world to these kids and to me as a coach.”

Tomorrow, the Lady Toppers will likely play their final match in Diddle Arena for the season as they advance to the C-USA Championship match against North Texas at noon. The Mean Green beat the Lady Toppers in a five-set thriller on Nov. 9th and advanced to the championship with a 3-1 win over UTSA.

“I love playing in Diddle Arena,” Engle added. “I don’t think that I would trade another atmosphere for what we have here. It’s very hard to describe how excited I am to be able to play in front of them again.”

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