The WKU volleyball team (32-2) battled until the very end on Friday night, but the Lady Toppers couldn’t keep themselves from stumbling against in-state rival Louisville (21-9) for the second time this season in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament Second Round.
No. 15 seed WKU had its school-record 28-game winning streak snapped in front of 5,023 fans, which set a new attendance record for a volleyball match held in Diddle Arena just one day after the previous record of 4,514 was set against Kennesaw State.
The Lady Toppers are still winless in the all-time series against the Cardinals — trailing 18-0 after this five-set loss — and WKU was halted in its attempt to reach the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Volleyball Tournament for the first time in program history.
But head coach Travis Hudson said he wasn’t going to linger on the Lady Toppers’ 3-2 loss at the hands of Louisville, which subsequently ended his 25th season at the helm.
While he acknowledged his frustration and disappointment as a competitor, he instead posed a rhetorical question: “How many good things have to happen before you’re just grateful?”
“I’m going to go home and I’m going to hug my kids, hug my wife and tell them I’ve missed them over the last four months and tell them I love them," Hudson said postgame. "Then, I’m going to find me somewhere quiet and I’m just going to thank God for all the blessings that he has put on WKU volleyball over the last 12 months, if you will, because it has been a journey.”
“There have been so many people that have been an important part of this along the way,” Hudson continued. “And nights like tonight you usually spend all your time thinking, ‘What if?’ and ‘Gosh, if we could’ve got this break,’ and that’s not who I’ll be. I’m going to be so full of gratitude for the journey that these kids took me on this year and for this incredible institution that I represent.”
Freshman Paige Briggs led the Lady Toppers with 19 kills, eight digs and two blocks. Sophomore Lauren Matthews ended with 17 kills, two digs and five blocks.
Junior Logan Kael finished with three aces, two assists and 21 digs, while senior Sophia Cerino capped her collegiate career with seven kills, an ace and three blocks for WKU.
The game was a dead heat from start to finish, which the final statistics reflected. Louisville finished with 58 kills, six aces, 16 blocks and a .179 hitting percentage, while WKU finished with 58 kills, six aces, seven blocks, 62 digs and a .162 hitting percentage.
“When we look back on our season, there is so much to be proud of,” sophomore Katie Isenbarger said. “I think that’s what we think about after that game. It’s so heartbreaking and sad that it had to end tonight. We all obviously wanted to move on, but I think there is a lot to be proud of. We’re just all really happy.“
Tensions ran high early in the opening set, but the sizable crowd in Diddle Arena willed the Lady Toppers to an early 4-1 lead over the Cardinals.
WKU kept its advantage intact until a 4-0 run by Louisville tied the game at 14-14.
Louisville secured its first lead of the match shortly after the game’s first timeout, taking a 16-15 advantage over WKU. The Lady Toppers responded with a 5-1 run, forcing the Cardinals to call for a timeout down 20-17.
WKU would then score five of the set’s next nine points, taking the first set by a thin 25-21 margin off an acrobatic kill from Briggs.
The second set started with sophomore Lauren Matthews scoring three of WKU’s first four points, allowing the Lady Toppers to jump out to an early 6-3 lead.
Louisville responded by entering a much taller rotation into the game — 6-foot-1-inch Aiko Jones, 6-foot-2-inch Amber Stivrins and 6-foot-3-inch Amaya Tillman — which stopped the Lady Toppers from having basically any success around the net.
The Cardinals finished the match with a 16-7 advantage in blocks.
With the help of a bigger and taller frontline, the Cardinals rattled off a 11-0 run and built an 18-12 lead over WKU.
Louisville carried its newfound advantage to a 24-18 lead, but it couldn’t quite find a way to clinch the match point and let WKU claw back to just a 24-21 deficit.
The Cardinals called for a late timeout and claimed one final point, taking the second set 25-21 over a reeling Lady Topper squad that was left looking for answers.
WKU came out in the third set with the intensity it had in the first, as the Lady Toppers jumped out to an 11-5 lead after a kill call Hudson challenged was reversed.
Louisville then battled back into the contest, as both teams traded blows until the score was tied at 19-19.
Louisville then built a momentum-shifting 23-21 lead, forcing Hudson to address the bleeding by asking for a late timeout.
The Cardinals kept pushing after the brief stoppage, and Louisville soon claimed the third set 25-22 off an emphatic kill from Jones.
Louisville came out in the fourth set with the momentum squarely in hand, as the Cardinals amassed an early 5-2 lead over WKU.
The Lady Toppers battled back, taking a brief 9-8 lead before Louisville answered with a 8-2 scoring run and took a 16-11 advantage.
WKU then flipped the momentum in a huge way, as the Lady Toppers soon found themselves up 22-19 on the Cardinals after an 8-1 scoring run.
Louisville kept battling until the scoreboard read 24-21, but WKU eventually claimed a 25-21 win in the fourth set off a Cerino kill.
Louisville started the decisive set with a 3-0 lead. The Cardinals added on to their advantage, forcing the Lady Toppers to call for a pair of timeouts down 6-1 and 9-2, respectively.
But WKU couldn’t find a way to overcome the Cardinals’ momentum, as Louisville went on to score six of the final nine points and claimed a 15-5 win in the fifth and final set.
“It was an amazing battle tonight,” Louisville head coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. “Hats off to Bowling Green, the community and Western Kentucky in general, because the atmosphere was amazing. I’ve been into some pretty good atmospheres, but that was definitely top three. I just want to congratulate Western Kentucky on a fantastic year and just thank you for making this special for volleyball, our sport and the state of Kentucky.”
Following the loss, the Lady Toppers will conclude their season with 32 wins, reaching 30-plus wins for the seventh time in the last nine seasons. Louisville is still alive in postseason play and will participate in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament Regionals next weekend.
Hudson took some time to reflect on the program’s historic 2019 campaign postgame, expressing gratitude for everything that’s transpired since the Lady Toppers fell in the opening round of the Conference USA Tournament on Nov. 16, 2018.
“Before we hosted this regional I said, hosting the NCAA Tournament is going to shine a spotlight on WKU,” Hudson said. “Let’s make sure they like what they see.”
“I’m telling you, everybody — from Todd Stewart, throughout this athletics department, throughout this whole entire Bowling Green community — has wrapped their arms around our program,” Hudson continued. “And they have shown this country that there are all kinds of places you can go have success, but there’s no better place you can come and feel the love and support of a community like you can right here in Bowling Green, Kentucky.”