50 up, 50 down: Lady Toppers tested in benchmark late season win

Clay Manlove

Post-season play is beginning to draw near for the Lady Toppers, and the ability to finish matches has been key for the squad over the last few days.

WKU picked up a pair of 3-0 sweeps this weekend in Diddle Arena over conference opponents Texas-El Paso and Texas-San Antonio, but they did not make it easy for the Lady Toppers early on.

However, the Lady Toppers were able to use big plays, depth and experience to be able to come out clean and improve their win streak to 19-straight, and increase their home conference winning streak to 50 in a row.

In Friday evening’s match against UTEP, WKU found itself down 21-18 late in the first set, but came back with help from two service aces from Sophia Cerino on their way to a 25-22 set one win.

In Sunday afternoon’s match against UTSA, the Roadrunners threatened the Lady Toppers’ 27-set win streak in the third set, leading 24-21 before WKU fired off five straight points to take a 26-24 win, sealed by a solo block by Taylor Dellinger.

“Taylor is always our unsung hero in this bunch,” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said on Sunday. “With a team full of all-Americans and all-Conference players, she has to do the grunt work a lot. She’s been up and down throughout the year, but she stepped up and made some big plays including that one at the end.”

The Lady Toppers found a lot of help from their outside hitting depth of Dellinger and Alyssa Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh recorded 39 kills over the weekend, 20 against UTSA and 19 against the Miners, while Dellinger tallied 10 kills on the weekend.

“Alyssa and Taylor did great the whole weekend,” junior Rachel Anderson said. “We all knew that they were going to have the matchup advantage going into this weekend, so everyone’s goal was to get that one block and to get them open to where they could make a play.”

Defense will remain a key area that the Lady Toppers will have to focus on in practice this week, as the Miners and the Roadrunners both came out of the gates hot.

“We’re just not consistent on defense, and that’s something that is going to be really important going into the tournament,” Anderson said. “Once our defense is in, we take off and control matches.”

UTEP matched the Lady Toppers in the first set of Friday’s match with a .212 hitting percentage, but finished with only a .165 clip on the night.

UTSA, who had 45 attack errors in Friday’s match against Rice, had zero attack errors and hit for a blistering .625 clip in the first set of Sunday’s match, finishing with a .346 clip on the day and hanging with the Lady Toppers until the very end.

“We’ve got to continue to defend better,” Hudson said. “We just couldn’t get [UTSA] stopped, and they played flawless. I’m still unclear how we won that first set; we just hung around and when we can find a way to win against a performance like that, I think it says a lot about our kids.”

Hudson went on to describe the importance of defense as a key in this week’s practice, but also cited the resilience of his team’s experience in the weekend matches.

“I think it’s more about mental conditioning than anything else,” he said. “We have kids that have been in big matches, and they’re not uncomfortable when it gets close. I think that they’re better in close matches because it raises their level of focus.”

Hudson said that rest and the health of the team will be key this week in practice. In a pair of road matches last weekend, senior setter Jessica Lucas suffered a bone bruise and strained ligaments in her left elbow, but played this weekend wearing a brace.

“You know you’re going to get everything that Jess has every night,” Hudson shared. “Even when she’s not 100 percent, you can’t hold that kid out, especially not this late in her senior year.”

The Lady Toppers will be back at home next weekend for a pair of conference matches between Marshall and Alabama-Birmingham on Friday and Sunday, respectively. WKU will not be home again after that until playing host to the Conference USA tournament from Friday, November 17 to Sunday, November 19.

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