Lady Toppers go for signature win Saturday against Kentucky

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LEXINGTON — Western Kentucky has only been in this position twice before. Perhaps three will indeed be the magic number?

"We’re just trying to set new goals here and that’s one thing that I don’t think has ever been done at Western,” WKU senior Sydney Engle said. “We’re trying to break new records and do new things with this class. I just can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

The immediate future holds a second-round match between Western Kentucky (31-3) and Kentucky (27-3) at 6 p.m. CST Saturday inside Memorial Gymnasium. A victory for the Lady Toppers would send them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.

The last two times – the only two times – WKU has made it this far, in 2012 and 2015, it was swept by Stanford and Brigham Young, respectively.

“We know we have our work cut out for us (Saturday). But what I know about our kids is they’re gonna go out there and lay it on the line,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said. “They care a lot about that jersey they slide on every day when they go out there to play. They’re gonna go out there and play and leave it on the court.

“One team is gonna be happy at he end of this tournament. One. OK? So I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. I spend a lot of time (thinking) about trying to get the very best out of our program and let that take us as far as it should take us because that’s what this tournament’s for.”

Friday’s 3-0 win for Western over Notre Dame in the opening round was career win No. 590 for the veteran WKU coach. It was also the 123rd victory for the team’s three seniors.

But no one wearing the signature red towel has ever experienced the second weekend in the NCAA’s national tournament. That can change Saturday with what would become the program’s signature win.

“It’s hard to get to this tournament. It is hard to get to this tournament,” Hudson said. “Western Kentucky had never been to this tournament prior to 2002. We’re in this tournament for the 11th time since then. It’s a hard thing to get here. And certainly an even harder thing to advance.”

Western advanced to the Round of 32 with a mesmerizing performance Friday against Notre Dame (22-10). It hit .300 as a team – the first team to do that against UND this season – and had five players with at least six kills.

All eyes were on the Fighting Irish defense coming in, but WKU’s defensive play stole the show with 10 blocks and 67 digs. Emma Kowalkowski (19), Hallie Shelton (17) and Sydney Engle (13) all finished with double-digit digs.

Offensively, Alyssa Cavanaugh had 18 kills while hitting with anger and confidence. Engle hit nearly 58 percent to go along with four blocks.

“What we pride ourselves on is our balance,” Hudson said. “Why we’re so good offensively – Alyssa Cavanaugh is an incredibly-talented offensive player. But Alyssa Cavanaugh took less than 1,000 swings this year. We pride ourselves on being able to come at you wherever you would like us to come.”

Kentucky, 3-0 winners over East Tennessee on Friday, has won seven straight and 21 of 22 dating back to Sept. 4. The Wildcats went 17-1 in the Southeastern Conference and finished with an RPI of 3.

Western has lost three straight to UK dating back to 2006 and has lost 13 of 17 overall in a series that started in 1987. Oddly enough, all four of WKU’s victories against the Cats have come in Lexington.

“I’m so proud of this team. I’m so proud, from Alyssa Cavanaugh to the last kid standing in that line,” Hudson said. “This group is a together group. They’re a talented group. They’ve pushed each other. They’ve stuck together.

“The hardest part sometimes is the day-to-day. It’s being fierce competitors in practice and being hugely supportive each other at the same time throughout the season. This bunch has just been very together all year and it’s rewarding for me to see kids that learn life lessons in terms of how to handle themselves pay off in a big way.”

— Follow WBKO sportswriter Chad Bishop on Twitter @MrChadBishop