No. 19 WKU faced off against No. 24 Rice in the Conference USA Championship on Saturday afternoon. The Hilltoppers improved to 21-0 on the season and 14-0 in C-USA play, taking down the Owls 3-1 to claim the C-USA Championship. Rice ends the season with a 16-5 record and 12-1 C-USA record.
The Hilltoppers will advance to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in seven seasons.
“This has been the most difficult season I’ve been a part of,” head coach Travis Hudson said. “Our players have had to grind every day to get through it and it has not always been fun. They’ve always been together and I love and I’m proud of them. Players win championships and they won one for their old coach this weekend.”
Back on March 31 when the program arrived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi Hudson went on a four-mile run and noticed that evening on the phone with his wife it was the three-year anniversary of his heart attack.
Hudson said he had a 12% chance of surviving his heart attack and that he’s been enjoying things more and been more grateful for the success of the program.
“I never take any of these for granted because we win one year doesn't mean we're gonna win one the next year,” Hudson said. “What I do know from three years ago is that God left me here for a reason, and every day I just, want to make sure our players understand how much I love them.”
Today I ran 4 miles in Hattiesburg Mississippi after our practice prior to the 1st spring CUSA vball tourney in history. 3 years ago today, I had a widow maker heart attack that left me lying in an ICU after being given a 12% chance of survival. Life sure is strange sometimes.— Travis Hudson (@TravisHudsonWKU) April 1, 2021
Junior Lauren Matthews received her second consecutive C-USA Volleyball Tournament MVP award Saturday afternoon. Matthews posted 20 kills and had a .500 hitting percentage in the win over Rice. Sophomore Paige Briggs and senior Nadia Dieudonne were both named to the All-Tournament team.
“I kind of like games like that because it gives us more of a challenge,” Matthews said following the win over Rice. “This game definitely prepared all of us for the next game in the NCAA Tournament. I knew that I had to raise up as a player and be who my team needed me to be.”
Briggs finished the afternoon with 11 kills and 15 digs for WKU. Dieudonne posted 52 assists over the Owls and eight digs for the Hilltoppers.
“Those games are what we play for, like the tight matches and play together and sticking together,” Briggs said.
Today junior Katie Isenbarger also helped the Hilltoppers out picking up 10 kills and three blocks. She finished the game with a .500 hitting percentage over Rice.
Rice was first to get points in Saturday’s match, with two points gained from a kill by senior Nicole Lennon and a WKU attack error.
A kill by Matthews assisted by Dieudonne got WKU its first point of the match.
WKU bumped up to a lead after a Rice bad set led to a 5-4 score. Two kills, one from sophomore Ellie Bichelmeyer and one from Lennon, let the Owls gain two points, putting them back up in the lead 5-6.
A kill by Isenbarger brought the score up to a 6-6 tie. The Owls were able to stay ahead for nine plays straight. An 11-11 tie was seen after the first ace of the day was done by senior Hallie Shelton.
Two kills from Rice brought the Owls up 11-13. Briggs responded with her second kill of the match, narrowing Rice’s lead to just one point.
Isenbarger again allowed the teams to tie 13-13 after she blocked an Owl ball. Three plays later, she hit a kill immediately after the first media timeout of the match.
A Rice service error allowed a 16-16 tie, and a block by Isenbarger pushed the Lady Toppers up 17-16. A solo ace by Briggs let WKU see their first two-point lead of the match, 18-16. This play was followed by the first timeout of the match from Rice.
A kill by Rice’s Lennon, her sixth of the match, let the Owls gain a point coming out of the timeout. A Rice block to a WKU ball brought the score to an 18-18 tie. The match was then paused due to Owl freshman Sahara Maruska receiving a left-hand injury and being taped up on the sideline.
A kill by Davis with an assist from Dieudonne brought WKU’s lead up to two points. The match’s first three-point lead coming from either team was seen after a Rice attack error raised the score to 21-18. The new lead was followed by Rice’s second timeout of the match.
Jackson shot out of the timeout with her second kill of the day. A Rice bad set let WKU see another new lead, 23-18. Matthews hit her third kill of the match to bring set one to setpoint.
WKU grabbed the first set of the match with a five-point lead 25-20 after Jackson accomplished her third kill of the set assisted by Dieudonne.
The Lady Toppers were able to get the first point of the second set with Matthews striking a kill. The Owls had their first point of set two from a kill by junior Carly Graham.
Briggs’ first kill of the set and a Rice service error showed a 4-2 score. Rice closed that gap and was able to get up 5-4 after a kill by Maruska.
Back-to-back kills from Jackson allowed WKU to take a 7-6 lead. Kills by Isenbarger, Matthews and Davis gave the teams a set-first three-point lead. Rice was again able to close the gap with a point gained from a WKU service error and two kills leading to an 11-11 score.
Both teams battled for the next six plays, knotting up the score each time. A kill from Isenbarger pulled in WKU’s 15th point of the set, followed by a media timeout. Briggs then hit a far serve allowing a point for Rice.
“I knew it was going to be a close game,” Hudson said. “I thought Rice was making plays early on and I really wanted us to just stay steady. I spent those timeouts just reassuring them that they were playing really good volleyball and that we just had to stay the course and we would catch our breaks and that happened.”
A kill by Davis, her fourth of the match, led to a 19-16 lead for WKU, the second three-point lead seen in the set. Rice took a timeout.
WKU acquired the first four-point lead of set two, 20-16, after a kill by Matthews. A kill by Owls’ Lennon and a block by sophomore Satasha Kostelecky shortened the margin to two points.
A kill by Matthews and a Rice attack error again let WKU see a four-point lead, and a Rice timeout followed.
Two kills by Briggs finalized the second set win of the day for WKU 25-19.
Set three began with a failed WKU block, resulting in Rice gaining the first point of the set. A heavy-hitting kill coming from Matthews gave WKU its first point of the set.
Two Rice errors pushed WKU up to an early two-point lead. Logan Kael saw her first ace of the match, WKU’s third, bringing the score up to 6-3.
The Owls were able to get their second lead of the set after a kill by Lennon tied the set 9-9, and a block by Kostelecky sent them ahead 9-10.
Two WKU attack errors followed, allowing a 4-0 scoring run for Rice. WKU called its first timeout of the match, trailing by three points.
The run was made into a 5-0 run after a kill by Owls’ Carly Graham. The run was ended after a Rice service error, letting WKU gain its 10th point of the set.
A tipped ball over the net from Isenbarger shortened the Owls’ lead to 14-15. A Rice attack error tied the set 15-15.
Rice’s Lennon completed two kills, allowing a three-point lead over WKU. WKU called its second timeout of the match shortly after. The Owls got its first ace of the match from Maruska, pushing Rice up four points.
Back-to-back kills from Jackson, both assisted by Dieudonne, shortened the Owls’ lead to one point. Rice took a timeout.
Kills by Kostelecky and Lennon followed the timeout, bringing the score up to 19-22. Isenbarger returned these plays with a kill at 20-22.
A kill by Rice’s Maruska brought the set to setpoint. The Owls brought in their first set of the match after a kill from Anota Adekunle. Rice won set three 25-21.
This is the fourth set that the Lady Toppers have lost all season, and it is only the second they have lost in C-USA play. The team has not gone to a five-set match this season.
Rice was first to get up on the scoreboard with a kill from Kostelecky. Matthews responded with a kill, getting WKU’s first point of the set.
Dieudonne saw her first kill of the afternoon with an assist by Shelton, bringing in the fourth point of the set for WKU. A big solo block by Isenbarger pushed the Lady Toppers up three points above the Owls.
Briggs got her 11th kill of the match, raising the score 7-5. A block from Rice’s Lennon tied the score 7-7. The Owls were able to gain another point from an ace by Tia Grippo. Two WKU attack errors led to WKU calling its first timeout of set four in the midst of Rice’s 3-0 scoring run.
The run was increased to 4-0 because of a block to Isenbarger’s ball. A Rice service error ended the run.
The Owls had their largest lead all set, 16-10, after Lennon hit her 20th kill of the match. A block by Jackson, her first solo block of the afternoon, was continued with Rice’s first timeout of the set.
WKU’s seventh service error of the match was at 21-17. A kill and a block by Matthews lessened the Owls’ lead to two points, 19-21. Rice called a timeout.
A kill by Davis cut the score to 21-20. An ace from senior Ashley Hood tied the set 21-21. Another kill from Davis let WKU climb up 22-21. An attack error and a kill from Lennon decreased WKU’s lead to one point.
Set four’s setpoint was achieved after a block from Dieudonne. Another block from Matthews brought in the third set win for WKU 25-22.
This is the sixth C-USA championship match WKU has won.
WKU will now await to be seeded in the NCAA Tournament following the Championship matchup. The tournament will take place in Omaha, Nebraska. Selection day is Sunday at 3 p.m. and will be broadcasted at 3 p.m.
Information on the NCAA Tournament can be found here. WKU will be one of 48 teams in the field of play this postseason. The first round of competition begins on April 14.
Volleyball beat reporter Cassady Lamb can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lambp0p.