Living at-large: Lady Toppers make NCAA field despite loss in Sun Belt tournament

Seniors Tiffany Elmore and Emily Teegarden celebrate the announcement of the Lady Toppers’ at-large bid the NCAA tournament at Double Dogs restaurant Sunday afternoon. WKU will play its first game in Champaign, Ill., against the University of Cincinnati on Friday.

Emily Patton

Head Coach Travis Hudson refused to take his eyes off the television Sunday.

The WKU volleyball team, staff and fans huddled around the 16th-year coach on Sunday afternoon at Double Dogs waiting to see if their 2010 season would continue.

An announcement about the NCAA tournament field was expected to air at 2 p.m., but ESPNews made Hudson wait until 2:16 p.m. instead.

Hudson learned that WKU (27-8) would not only earn an at-large berth but will also face a familiar foe in Cincinnati (29-5) on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Huff Hall in Champaign, Ill.

“With everything they’ve been through, they deserve it,” Hudson said in between the tears, cheers and hugs. “It was a fate thing.”

The Lady Toppers had to hope for an at-large bid after Middle Tennessee knocked them out in the championship round of the Sun Belt Conference tournament Nov. 20.

After the announcement Sunday, senior Kelly Potts stood on her stool at the restaurant and screamed.

“Every time they would put up another bracket on the screen, I would start from the top and read down,” Potts said. “When I saw Western Kentucky up on the screen, I just screamed. Tears came to my eyes. Hugs everywhere.”

In the defensive specialist’s five years at WKU, Potts will now have earned a trip to the NCAA tournament for the third time in her career.

To Potts, this time is even more special because of the challenges the Lady Toppers have had to face, from dropped matches against MTSU to the bus incident on Oct. 7.

“It makes it worth it to say we’ve gone through all that and then to achieve this,” Potts said. “We can’t say we are a team that faced adversity and didn’t make it. We got through it, and now we are going to the NCAA.”

Like her senior teammate, outside hitter Emily Teegarden said qualifying to the tournament makes the hardships of the season “worth it.”

Teegarden has also made it to the NCAA tournament three times now.

“When we were down in our locker room after the Sun Belt tournament, I said, ‘Guys, we aren’t saying goodbye. We are making the tournament,'” Teegarden said. “It is really exciting to be able to experience this again.”

Hudson said the selection show results could have easily gone the other way if WKU hadn’t played against high-ranked teams like Cincinnati and Missouri during the regular season.

Then-No. 27 Missouri wasn’t even originally scheduled during the Sept. 10-11 WKU Tournament in Diddle Arena.

“Our schedule was done,” Hudson said. “Then Missouri called and had a tournament fall through. They wanted to know if we could squeeze them in and make room.”

To allow Missouri to enter the home tournament, Hudson made it a five-team tournament rather than four.

“It made for a couple very long nights in Diddle Arena,” Hudson said. “But that win over that Big 12 power may have very well been the thing that got us in.”

Hudson said to prepare for the NCAA tournament he would review the match WKU played against the Bearcats earlier this season – a 1-3 (25-21, 20-25, 21-25, 24-26) loss on Oct. 19 in Diddle Arena.

The last time the Lady Toppers played in the NCAA tournament was in 2008. They lost to Cincinnati in the first round.

But Hudson said he expects a different result in 2010.

“We are going to go up there and hopefully play well and maybe get this thing to places it hasn’t been before yet,” he said.