Matthews’ historic performance propels WKU to regular season title

WKU+Hilltoppers+senior+middle+hitter+Lauren+Matthews+%285%29+spikes+the+ball+over+three+Old+Dominion+players+during+the+match+on+Oct.+28%2C+2021.

Jacob Latimer

WKU Hilltoppers’ senior middle hitter Lauren Matthews (5) spikes the ball over three Old Dominion players during the match on Oct. 28, 2021.

Cole McIntire, Volleyball reporter

No. 22 WKU Volleyball (26-2, 14-0 C-USA) earned  the 2022 Conference USA regular season title by defeating the No. 21 Rice University Owls (22-3, 12-1 C-USA) 3-2 Thursday night at Diddle Arena. 

“You know it’s a classic everytime Western Kentucky and Rice play,” head coach Travis Hudson said. “That one may have outdone them all. The amount of guts it took us to fight back, the amount of guts it took for Rice to continually bounce back. It was an incredible match and a storybook ending for our seniors.”

Fifth-year senior Lauren Matthews delivered a spectacular performance on WKU’s senior night and her final regular season game as a Hilltopper. Matthews had a career-best 30 kills, tied an NCAA single-match record with13 blocks and posted a .377 hitting percentage.

 “Just rip it,” Matthews said when asked what was going through her mind as she hit the last two kills for the Hilltoppers to win a regular season conference championship.

The match was highly anticipated as the two teams were set on a “collision course” since the beginning of the season, according to Hudson.

The Hilltoppers rose to the challenge as they defeated the ranked Owls. Hudson’s squad had 17 total blocks, 58 assists, 64 kills and hit a .242 average. The Hilltoppers leaned on leaders like Matthews in big moments. 

In the first set the rivals exchanged blows. The Owls held a 5-3 lead, then WKU sophomore Kenadee Coyle created a kill that sparked the Hilltoppers. Following that, WKU was able to force fifth-year senior Anota Adekunle to make an attacking error, evening the score in the set. The teams continued to go back and forth.

When the score was 8-7 in favor of WKU, Rice made a service error. After that the Hilltoppers went on an impressive 8-2 run. A combination of kills from Kenadee Coyle, Matthews and senior Paige Briggs helped the Hilltoppers develop their lead. The home team would go on to win the set 25-19. 

In the first set Matthews created five kills, two total blocks and hit at an even .300 hitting percentage. This would serve as a precursor to her historic night. Coyle was also a standout in the set, earning three kills. 

Both teams had five attack errors. WKU had three service errors compared to Rice’s four. The Hilltoppers hit at a .294 clip while Rice was held to a .200 hitting percentage. WKU led by four in the kills category with 15 while also earning three blocks. 

The second set was one for the ages, featuring phenomenal back-and-forth play by both teams. WKU started hot, jumping to a 4-0 lead. In the run, Matthews let it fly with two consecutive kills, followed by Katie Howard creating one. From then on the teams were dead even, exchanging points. 

Once the score stood at 20-19, Rice called a timeout to attempt to stop WKU. In the timeout it was announced that redshirt freshman Callie Bauer earned her 1,000th career assist.

With WKU leading 25-24, needing to win by two, Rice called another timeout. The set featured nine lead changes and at 14 different ties, with Rice prevailing 28-26.  

The third set did not disappoint. Yet again, the teams went right down to the wire. The set featured emphatic plays from players on both sides of the ball.

The set was tied up at 23 before senior Ellie Bichelmeyer created a kill for the Owls. With their backs against the wall, the Hilttoppers registered kills from Bauer and Briggs. This brought fans inside Diddle Arena to their feet.

Rice head coach Genny Volpe called a timeout for the Owls to calm the crowd, but it did not change the end result. The Owls made an attack error coming out of the break and WKU won the set 26-24. 

The Hilltoppers were bested by the Owls in the fourth set. After three intense competitive sets, fatigue affected both teams. 

“We got tired […] and we came out really flat in the fourth set, and against a good team, I mean they’re going to jump on you,” Hudson said.

The Owls led the fourth set in kills by a  20-8 margin and more than doubled the Hilltoppers’ .154 hitting percentage, posting a .341 average. Rice won the set 25-17.

The fifth and final set was led by Matthews. The set was back-and-forth until Hudson made some adjustments with the score tied at 14.

“They had been hurting us to the left and I put Avri Davis into the match […] Avri is a former middle hitter and when I put her in and allowed her to block out their middle hitter, which allowed Lauren to release out to their outside hitter,” Hudson said. “And Lauren came up with a huge block in that situation right there.”

With a little help from Matthews, the Hilltoppers were able to beat back the Owls 16-14 in the fifth and final set to secure their fourth consecutive spotless C-USA record.

The team will be taking a three-day weekend break as they rest in preparation for the conference tournament. WKU will be the No. 1 seed as the team went undefeated in conference play. 

The Hilltoppers’ next match will be announced soon. The Conference USA tournament will be played Nov. 18-20 in Diddle Arena.

Sports reporter Cole McIntire can be reached at [email protected]