Hilltoppers to begin C-USA tournament against UAB: ‘They’re a team that can compete in this thing’

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Arthur Trickett-Wile

The WKU Hilltoppers celebrate after a point against the MTSU Blue Raiders on Friday, Oct. 15 of 2021 during a match WKU won 3-0 in Diddle Arena.

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

When the No. 18 Hilltoppers step onto the floor in Norfolk, Virginia, on Friday afternoon, WKU’s quest for a seventh Conference USA tournament championship will have begun.

“This year, of all years, with everything everybody’s been through emotionally and mentally, you’re going to see more upsets in tournaments this year than you’ve ever seen,” head coach Travis Hudson said. “We try to be the best version of ourselves. There’s a lot of teams in this tournament that can win it, we’re certainly in that group but we’re definitely not separated from that group to where it can’t be us.”

WKU rolls into Norfolk in the middle of a 17-match winning streak. The program has built an all-time 18-1 record during its trips to the C-USA tournament and the Hilltoppers are 4-0 in neutral site play this year, another stat in WKU’s favor.

“Our kids, I hope they get excited,” Hudson said. “It’s been hard to get excited for a while for them just because they’re so emotionally drained. But I hope this is an exciting time for them, we’ve played awfully well this time of year in conference tournament time, but again that’s no guarantee.”

The UAB Blazers are the first obstacle for Hudson’s team. The Blazers went 11-13 throughout the regular season and are bringing a 6-6 conference record to the tournament. The team turned in the sixth-highest hitting percentage in C-USA this fall (.212) and only recorded three fewer kills than WKU.

“I think a lot of people think we just go to the tournament and win it, but this is a difficult task,” Hudson said. “You have to be at your best every day and hope to not be on the wrong end of a Cinderella in this tournament. The gap is not so large that it can’t happen in a lot of these matches starting in the first round.”

UAB’s potent combination of junior outside hitter/right side Fernanda Maida and redshirt junior outside hitter Alex Kells have combined for 617 kills throughout the season and stand fourth and seventh in C-USA in kills respectively.

Sophomore setter Lidya Canturk is fourth in the league in service ace percentage, recording 30 of them in 87 serves for a 0.34 average. The Blazer’s strong offense will serve as a difficult first-round test for WKU.

“They’ve got a couple players that can play with anybody in this league,” Hudson said. “Fernanda Maida, Alex Kells, their two outside hitters are very productive, very talented kids. This is one of those teams, this is certainly a team that can advance in this tournament.”

“We know we have our hands full right away, starting in the first round,” Hudson continued. “You look at their record, that’s a very misleading record. Maida, their top player, has been out with some injury issues. When you watch them on film, you learn very quickly that they’re a team that can compete in this thing.”

WKU will face the Blazers beginning at 5 p.m. CT on Friday. The victor will move on to face the winner of FIU vs UTEP.

Sports Editor Jake Moore can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Charles_JMoore.