WKU Volleyball falls to Rice in C-USA title game

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Tucker Covey

WKU sophomore outside hitter Katie Howard hits the ball through MTSU defense during the Conference USA Tournament in E.A. Diddle Arena on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. WKU swept the match 3-0.

Cole McIntire, Volleyball reporter

WKU Volleyball (28-3, 16-1 C-USA) failed to capture its fourth straight conference tournament title after losing 3-2 to the Rice University Owls (28-3, 16-1) 3-2 Sunday afternoon in the Conference USA Championship in Diddle Arena.

At the conclusion of the match, fifth-year senior Carly Graham took home the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. With the conference title, the Owls secured an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. 

“It’s just a razor thin margin between the two battles,” head coach Travis Hudson said. “I’m really proud of our team […] they never wavered throughout the whole match.” 

Fifth-year senior Lauren Matthews led her team with 27 kills, four blocks and hit at a .407 clip. Senior Paige Briggs created 20 kills, two blocks and two service aces. 

For the Owls, junior Danyle Courtley hit 17 kills, Carley Graham posted 64 assists and fifth-year senior Anota Adekunle had 15 kills. 

The opening set began with a kill by Anota Adekunle for Rice. The teams traded blows, making the game tied 2-2. An error by the Owls sparked a Hilltopper 7-2 run, forcing the Owls to call a timeout. To cap off the run, freshman Abby Schaefer served an ace, followed by a kill from Katie Isenbarger. 

The set continued with streaky play by the Hilltoppers. Once it was set point for WKU at 24-18, Rice went on an uncontested 4-0 run, forcing Hudson to call a timeout. After the break WKU responded with a kill by Matthews, taking the set 25-22. 

The Hilltoppers played phenomenal defense thanks to Schaefer, Briggs and Howard creating service aces, complemented by two blocks from Matthews. Sophomore Kenadee Coyle also created two kills. The Hilltoppers stuffed five blocks in the first set and had three service aces. Their defense was a catalyst for their strong performance, holding Rice to a .205 hitting percentage in the opening set.

Rice honed in on its game plan and controlled the second set. The Owls restricted the Hilltoppers in their ability to get into their system and play to their strengths. Rice and WKU went back and forth early in the set, keeping the score 6-6. The Hilltoppers went on to hurt themselves through seven attack errors and three service errors.

With the Owls leading 17-11, WKU called a timeout. The Hilltoppers would go on a 8-5 run, making the score 22-19 with the Owls still leading. Rice head coach Jenny Volpe called a timeout to rally her squad.

WKU would score two more points off a kill by Coyle and a service ace from Briggs. Rice would call its second timeout, which resulted in a 3-1 run. The Hilltoppers were sparked by a kill from senior Jennifer Rush, but a service error by Isenbarger would close the set. Rice took the set 25-22. 

The third set symbolized this historic rivalry between these two teams, featuring five ties and two lead changes. Early in the set a Rice player extended over the media table for a save. Following a media timeout, the dynamic duo of Matthews and Isenbarger struck. Isenbarger severed up an ace, which was followed by a block from Matthews, forcing the Owls to halt their momentum with a timeout. 

That timeout was only a band-aid to the fatal wound inflicted by the Hilltoppers. Coyle struck the two final kills to claim the set for WKU 25-22.

The fourth set was cracked open by Rice. The Owls dictated the pace of play early, winding up with a 15-12 lead before WKU put together a 9-5 run. WKU held a 21-20 lead, but Rice struck back to lead 23-21 thanks to kills from Satasha Kostelecky and Lola Foord.

Hudson called a timeout that was immediately followed by a block by Isenbarger and an attack error by the Owls. With the lead lost, Volpe called a timeout as well.

Rice and WKU would continue to fight back and forth. The teams would take turns seeming to have the other on the ropes, but each time the opposing team would rally back. The set finally concluded 28-26 Rice’s favor with two kills by junior Sahara Maruska.

“There’s no time to relax at that moment,” Hudson said when asked what he told his team during the match.

The fifth set opened with WKU snagging the first point off an attack error. WKU’s defense leaned on Coyle for a block, making the lead 2-0. The competitors would go back and forth, but Rice took the set and the match 15-11 off of a kill by Adekunele and then an attack error by Briggs. 

“If anybody learned anything about our team tonight, it was things I already knew,” Hudson said. “That our team would fight and compete and play at a high level […] and that’s what happened.”

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