WKU advances to C-USA Championship match

Senior Kayland Jackson (15) and junior Lauren Matthews (5) going up for a block on April 2, 2021 against UTEP. WKU swept the set 3-0 against the Miners to advance the C-USA Championship match. 

Cassady Lamb

WKU faced off against UTEP in the semifinal of the Conference USA Championship on Friday afternoon. The Hilltoppers improved to 20-0 on the season and 13-0 in C-USA play taking down the Miners 3-0. UTEP ends the season with a 10-7 record and 8-5 C-USA record. 

This is WKU’s 21st season with 20 wins and currently has the country’s fifth best winning streak. 

“We were hitting on all cylinders,” head coach Travis Hudson said. “We served the ball incredibly well, we played great defense and we were who we are offensively a lot. Really proud to be back in the Championship game.” 

Sophomore outside hitter Paige Briggs led the Hilltoppers with 11 kills over the Miners while senior setter Nadia Dieudonne paced WKU with 35 assists. Junior middle hitter Lauren Matthews finished the match with three blocks against the Miners. 

“I wish we could walk out there and keep playing right now,” Hudson said of his team. “Tomorrow is going to be a tremendous challenge and we know that. You can’t win championships if you don’t get to the championship match and so we’re glad to be back in it.” 

Set 1 

Friday’s match began with a serve by junior middle hitter Katie Isenbarger, with the beginning play resulting in a UTEP point.

A failed block attempt allowed WKU’s first point of the match, last touched by senior right side Kayland Jackson. 

The first ace of the match was seen after UTEP’s freshman Ava Palm got one over the Lady Toppers. Two plays later, Dieudonne gained a point for WKU after she hit the team’s first ace of the match.

A kill by Isenbarger brought WKU’s lead up to 10-6, the largest lead at that point of the set. The lead was then narrowed to two points after two WKU errors.

A big block by Dieudonne pushed the Hilltoppers back up to a four-point lead as well as a two-point run. The play was followed by applause on the court and in the crowd. A UTEP timeout followed, the first of the match.

Matthews hit a kill right out of the timeout, making it a 3-0 run. An ace by junior defensive specialist Ashley Hood and a UTEP attack error finalized the run at 5-0.

Miner junior Paulina Perez Rosas ended the Hilltopper run with a kill, letting UTEP see its 10th point of the set.

Three consecutive kills by Briggs led the Lady Toppers to get their 20th point of the set and see their largest lead up to that point, 21-13. All of the kills were assisted by Dieudonne.

Dieudonne then got a kill of her own, putting WKU up 22-13, which was followed by UTEP’s second timeout.

Isenbarger shot out of the timeout with a kill assisted by Dieudonne. Dieudonne then hit her second kill of the set, bringing the set to setpoint, 24-13.

“We love challenges,” Dieudonne said in a post-match Zoom conference. “I feel like we adapt well, I feel like we don’t get rattled. Whatever comes at us we’ll always return with an answer.”

A UTEP attack error concluded the first set 25-13, bringing in WKU’s first set win of the day.

Set 2 

A UTEP service error began the second set, followed by a block by Matthews and Dieudonne, letting WKU begin the set with a 2-0 lead.

Sophomore Alianza Darley brought in UTEP’s first point of the set with a kill. A kill by senior Cheyenne Jones let the Miners see another point in the next play. 

WKU went on an early 4-0 run, which included kills from sophomore Avri Davis, Matthews and two from Briggs. The fourth point was gained after a UTEP bad set, and that error was followed by a UTEP timeout.

Two Miner errors followed the timeout, bringing the scoring run up to 7-0. The run was ended after an overly strong serve by senior Hallie Shelton.

Kills from Briggs and Isenbarger brought in two more points for the Hilltoppers, bringing them up eight points over the Miners.

Jackson hit her fifth kill of the afternoon at 16-7, adding to the WKU’s lead. An ace by Shelton, her first of the match and WKU’s third, let the Lady Toppers gain their 20th point of the set and continue their run, now 4-0. 

The run ended at 5-0 after a block by Briggs and Matthews was followed by a kill by UTEP’S Perez, making the score 21-9.

An ace coming from Logan Kael allowed the teams to see set point in the second set. Similar to the closure of the first set, a 4-0 run ending with a UTEP attack error allowed WKU to win the second set 25-9.

Set 3 

UTEP gained the first point of the set following a WKU attack error. A kill by Briggs with an assist from Isenbarger let WKU get its first point of the third set.

The Miners were able to get up to a four-point lead early on in the set. 

“I don’t know if I even noticed that we were down,” Isenbarger said Wednesday in a post-match Zoom conference. “Because we just have this calmness, we don’t get rattled very easily.”

An ace from Dieudonne let WKU see a tie at 7-7 for the first time since the teams were 1-1.

“I’m just really proud of my team for not getting rattled and not having it affect us in any way,” Isenbarger said. “I think we pushed through and did really good.”

After 14 plays of trailing behind, a UTEP attack error allowed WKU to finally see an 8-7 lead. A kill by Briggs followed, bumping up the Lady Toppers’ lead to two points. 

A kill by Jackson put WKU up 10-7 and led to a 6-0 scoring run and UTEP timeout. Jackson then came out of the timeout blocking a Miner ball and increasing WKU’s lead.

Three additional UTEP attack errors brought the score to 14-7.

Dieudonne helped the Hilltoppers to a 13-0 run as the program brought their lead to 18-8 over UTEP.

A kill by Matthews let WKU grab their 20th point of the set, while the Miners trailed by 11 points. A block and a heavy-hitting kill assisted by Dieudonne brought the score up to 22-10.

A kill and a block by Matthews assisted by Davis contributed to set point 24-10. Setpoint was in play for an extra play due to a kill by Miner Serena Patterson.

Matthews saw her 10th kill of the day and Dieudonne saw her 35th assist of the day to bring in WKU’s third and final set win of Friday’s match 25-11.

Both Dieudonne and Isenbarger expressed their anticipation for tomorrow’s match.

“We’re all really excited,” Dieudonne said. “It’s a great, great challenge for us, so we’ll be excited to play tomorrow.”

Up next the Hilltoppers will face either Charlotte or Rice in the Championship round Saturday at noon CST. The match is available to stream on ESPN+.

“It will probably feel more like an NCAA Tournament game than a conference tournament game if that becomes the case,” Hudson said of the Championship match. 

Volleyball beat reporter Cassady Lamb can be reached [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @lambp0p.