WKU lands in-state for first round of NCAA Tournament

WKU players celebrate as they win their last game of the Conference USA tournament in E.A. Diddle Arena on Sunday Nov 19, 2017. This is the fourth conference title in the last four years for the Lady Toppers.

Clay Manlove

The WKU volleyball team has been shipped out West over the last two seasons for the NCAA Tournament, ending its season in California and Utah in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

This season, the Lady Toppers will not even have to cross the Kentucky state line.

In Sunday evening’s NCAA Volleyball Tournament Selection Show, the Lady Toppers were drawn to take a trip to Lexington to play Notre Dame in the first round at 5 p.m. EST Friday in Memorial Coliseum.

“We will all get to be around our family and friends, so it will be a good atmosphere,” junior and Lexington native Mary Martin said. “The past two years we’ve been very far from home, so no one has gotten to come and watch. This year, especially since we have a bunch of players from Kentucky and Indiana, they will all have family there too.”

The two-and-a-half-hour trip to the University of Kentucky will have its perks, as Martin, a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and freshmen Hallie Shelton and Darby Music out of Henry Clay High School all hail from the city of Lexington.

“It’ll be nice for [Martin, Shelton and Music] to have some extended family that can come watch,” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said. “We have plenty of other family from the area and it’s a dream come true from a geographical standpoint.”

The Lady Toppers earned their first-round date with the Fighting Irish (22-9) after winning the Conference USA Tournament over North Texas two Sundays ago in Diddle Arena, and the confidence level couldn’t be higher for Hudson.

“We are a team that’s built to continue to play,” Hudson said. “These kids have played and won in the NCAA Tournament. A lot of these kids were part of our [2015] team that beat Arizona in the first round. We’re veteran and as healthy as we’ve been in a long time, so I don’t think the moment will be too big.”

This year’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament will be the 11th for the Lady Toppers in school history — all under head coach Travis Hudson — and the seventh appearance in the last eight seasons. It will also be the fourth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance for seniors Alyssa Cavanaugh, Sydney Engle, Jessica Lucas and Amara Listenbee.

“Every little girl’s dream is to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Hudson said. “It’s been a pretty magical run for this group of seniors, but it’s not by accident. They’ve worked hard and gotten better year in and year out. It’s only gotten tougher on us as the years have gone by because there is always a bullseye on us.”

The 2017 season will also mark the first time in school history that a group of seniors has made it to the Big Dance in each of their four years on the Hill.

The Lady Toppers will be looking to push a little further this season after not yet making it past the second round in any of their 11 appearances, and Hudson credited what he pulled out of a regular season finale loss at North Texas as proof that this group can be the one to finally break the mold.

“I learned a lot about our team when we lost that regular season finale at North Texas,” Hudson said. “That’s when I knew that we were built for this stage because we played really well in the face of adversity. I don’t think this team is satisfied with how we finished last year, and we’re looking for another opportunity to put our best foot forward.”

Joining WKU and Notre Dame in the Lexington regional are East Tennessee State and the host Wildcats.

This year’s first round will mark the first time WKU has played the Fighting Irish, who posted a 12-8 record in the ACC and earned an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament.

“This time of year, you’re going to play an excellent opponent,” Hudson said. “You just hope that you can match up from a physical standpoint, but I certainly think we will be in that match. That’s all you can ask for around tournament time is to be able to win a match and find a way to advance.”

East Tennessee State earned an automatic bid to the tournament after finishing 12-4 in Southern Conference play and winning the conference championship with a trio of sweeps. WKU defeated the Bucs on its home floor Sept. 8, 3-1.

Kentucky earned host honors after winning the SEC for the first time in school history and will play ETSU at 7:30 p.m. ET Friday.

WKU is the only Conference USA team to be included in this year’s tournament. North Texas, who was expected to be a candidate for an at-large bid, fell short of the tournament and instead accepted an automatic bid in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship.

The winner of Friday’s first match between WKU and Notre Dame will play the winner of Kentucky and East Tennessee State on Saturday at 7 p.m. EST in Memorial Coliseum.

“You really have to adjust to the physicality when you get to the tournament,” Hudson said. “Conference USA has a lot of great teams, but there are a lot more physical teams out there. More than anything, we have to manage our emotions and continue doing what we do. If we do that, we’ll be in that match against Notre Dame.”

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