WKU Volleyball wins seventh C-USA tournament championship in eight years, clinches NCAA automatic bid


Arthur H. Trickett-Wile

WKU Hilltoppers break before their volleyball game against the Ole Miss Rebels on the evening of Sept. 10, 2021, at Diddle Arena. WKU lost 3-1.

Jake Moore, Sports Editor

WKU Volleyball became Conference USA tournament champions for the third time in a row and seventh time in program history on Sunday morning.

The No. 18 Hilltoppers (27-1, 15-0 C-USA) defeated the Rice Owls (19-6, 14-1 C-USA) 3-1 in four sets in Norfolk, Virginia, to claim the title. It was the third year in a row and fifth time ever the Hilltoppers defeated the Owls to become conference champions.

“I say this over and over again, but this is not about me,” an emotional head coach Travis Hudson said after the win. “I am in the presence of a really, really special group of student-athletes, to see how many times they persevered in so many different kinds of settings and situations. It’s a special time in our program and I’m trying to enjoy every second of it.”

Senior middle hitter Lauren Matthews was named tournament MVP for the third consecutive year. She finished the day with 21 kills and a .421 hitting percentage.

“She was a second-team all-American last year and we’ll see where she is this year, but I promise you she is a first-team all-American competitor,” Hudson said. “There’s just very few like her, she never shies away in big moments.”

Fifth-year right side Kayland Jackson also broke double-digit kills, turning in 13 with two assisted blocks and a .458 hitting clip.

Junior outside hitter Paige Briggs recorded nine kills and a pair of both aces and assists. Junior outside hitter Avri Davis and senior middle hitter Katie Isenbarger both turned in eight kills each.

Fifth-year setter Nadia Dieudonne was reliable as ever, turning in 55 assists and three kills, including one ace. 

Both programs hit .317 overall, but WKU edged out the Owls in kills 62-55. The Hilltoppers recorded seven aces and gave up none to their opponents.

“We fought our way through,” Matthews said. “We knew we had to stay aggressive from the service line and that’s where our key for the match was. We knew they were pretty even with us when it came to floor defense and the matchups of the front row, so we knew we had to bring it from the service line and that’s what we did.”

Set 1: Rice 25, WKU 16

Isenbarger hit an ace to open the day. Hudson challenged a call early on in the match and won after an early whistle prevented either side from scoring.

The Owls broke off a 4-0 run to take a 9-5 lead, forcing Hudson to take the first timeout of the day. Rice began the match by hitting .833.

Isenbarger notched a kill coming out of the break to snap the streak but the Owls rebounded to reach double-digits while holding a 10-6 lead.

Rice’s Nicole Lennon went on a tear, recording a quartet of kills to put her team up 15-9 and prompting Hudson to call his second timeout.

The Owls reached 20 points following a successful challenge and Matthews responded with a kill to cut the deficit to 20-13. A kill from Rice’s Adekunle brought up set point. Jackson notched a kill to keep the Hilltoppers alive, but the Owls took set one following a kill from Ellie Bichelmeyer.

The Owls finished the first set of the day hitting .615 with just a single error. Rice pressured the Hilltoppers up at the net, recording seven blocks in the opening frame.

“How many teams go away in a tournament setting when they get beat 25-16 in the first set?” Hudson said. “These kids are just different. I’m a very lucky man to be coaching them.”

Set 2: WKU 25, Rice 14

The second set proved to be in complete contrast to the opening frame.

Davis opened up the set with her third kill of the day and the Hilltoppers took an early lead. A 3-0 run for the red and white gave WKU a 7-2 advantage and the Owls took a timeout following an ace from Shelton.

The Hilltoppers reached double-digits thanks to Briggs’ first kill of the day. The sides went back-and-forth before a big rejection from Jackson put the Hilltoppers up 13-6 and prompted another Rice timeout.

Freshman defensive specialist Kelsey Brangers got in on the action, hitting an ace to bring the score to 16-7 in WKU’s favor.

“I grabbed all of our young kids and pulled them down to the end of the bench and said ‘guys, pay attention today, pay attention to this competitive drive, pay attention to this atmosphere, what it takes to play at this level’,” Hudson said, “Because we’re going to do more of this. I want you to soak it in today.”

WKU leapt out to a 22-11 lead. Matthews had a dozen kills to her name before WKU brought about set point.

Isenbarger recorded a thunderous block to put her team up 23-11. The Owls fought to stay alive, forcing three attempts at set point before Isenbarger wrapped up WKU’s equalizer with her fourth kill.

“There’s just no panic in our team, there’s just not,” Hudson said. “It’s because of the kids on the court and because of the leadership.”

Set 3: WKU 25, Rice 22

The Hilltoppers jumped out to a 6-3 lead early in the third set. WKU remained out front, holding a 14-12 lead in the middle stages of the frame. Matthew’s 16th kill of the day preceded a media timeout as her Hilltoppers led 15-12.

The score remained tight. Rice built some momentum with back-to-back kills but a kill from Davis set the score to 18-15. A block from Davis a little later on prompted the Owls to take their second timeout and a huge kill from Mathews brought up set point at 24-22.

A Rice miscommunication allowed the ball to fall to the floor and gave WKU a 25-22 set win. The Hilltoppers hit .333 compared to the Owls’ clip of .364, but still pulled out the victory.

Set 4: WKU 25, Rice 20

Set four remained tight in its early stages. Both sides swapped kills and the score stood at 4-4 before a 6-1 run from the Owls prompted a WKU timeout. The Hilltoppers embarked on a 4-0 run out of the timeout to knot the score at 8-8.

The sides went point-for-point before the Hilltoppers broke out for a slim 17-16 lead. Jackson’s 13th kill of the day and an ace from Briggs gave WKU room to breathe and forced a Rice timeout.

The Hilltoppers took a timeout after a 2-0 Rice run brought the score to 23-20. Matthews’ 21st kill brought about the championship point and a Rice attack error clinched the Hilltoppers’ third consecutive tournament championship and an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m in the middle of a championship match, I’m already thinking about the future ones,” Hudson said. “Not because I need another ring, but because there is no [better] feeling in the world for me like seeing those kids dogpile at the end of a tournament. I’m always in search of the next one of those and that’s what drives me as a coach.”

The Hilltoppers stormed the floor as DJ Khaled’s “All I do is win” blared over the speakers, a fitting soundtrack for yet another WKU title.

“This was more special than usual because the fifth-year seniors have been with us for three years, and it was their last go-around,” Matthews said. “It’s very emotional for me because it’s going to be very different next year. It’s gonna be hard. It’s going to be different, we’re going to miss them a lot.”

WKU now turns its attention to the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The 64-team bracket will be announced on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m. CT on Sunday, Nov. 28. The top 16 teams will be given the first opportunity to host the opening rounds, which are to be held from Dec. 2-5. 

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