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Defense shines as Tops roll to 5-0 on the season

Evansville Purple Aces at WKU Hilltoppers on January 31, 2021 at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling...
Evansville Purple Aces at WKU Hilltoppers on January 31, 2021 at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, KY(Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics | Steve Roberts/WKU Athletics)
Published: Jan. 31, 2021 at 11:07 PM CST
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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) -WKU Volleyball has secured a 5-0 start for the first time since 2016 with sweeps over Saint Louis and Evansville on Sunday. The Hilltoppers’ defense stifled the opposing attacks, holding them to a collective .011 hitting percentage on the day while the Red and White operated at a .329 mark. Every available Hilltopper made an appearance and an impact in the day’s outcome.

“This was another great weekend in Diddle Arena, from a defensive standpoint more than anything else,” WKU Volleyball head coach Travis Hudson opened. “I think we’re known across college volleyball for what we do offensively. We finished second in the country last year in hitting efficiency and it’s easy to rely on that but we really worked in the fall to defend like we’re not good at offense. I think our level of defense has really improved in the last year and I’m excited about how we defended this weekend.”

WKU has now swept four of its five matches this season, which translate to a 15-1 set-by-set record. Saint Louis (0-2) finished the day 0-2 after dropping a five-set match to Evansville. The Purple Aces would go 1-1 in the Holiday Inn – University Plaza Invitational to move to 2-2 on the season.

“We’re just a much, much deeper team with a lot more kids that we can really lean on offensively,” Hudson added. “I think that will only prove to serve us well moving forward.”

“I think the biggest key for us today was our defense,” Lauren Matthews said. “Evansville is a really scrappy team, they fly around and they’ve got some hitters so our defense was key, they really helped control the game.”

WKU 3, SAINT LOUIS 0

Saint Louis struck for the first two points of the day’s opening match but WKU would take the lead for good on a Billiken attack error that made the score 7-6. Katie Isenbarger followed with a solo block before SLU committed another error and Paige Briggs found the floor for a kill to give the Tops a 10-6 lead and force a Saint Louis timeout. The Red and White pushed ahead to a 21-16 lead off another Briggs’ kill to force the Billikens to call for another break. WKU would score four of the next five points to win the frame 25-17. The Tops worked at a .310 attack rate in the set while holding SLU to a mark of .057.

Set two saw 14 ties and nine lead changes before the Hilltoppers would ultimately claim the frame but not before Saint Louis was up 24-23 for set point. In need of a point, Nadia Dieudonne set Kayland Jackson who found the floor to knot the frame at 24-24 and erase the Billiken advantage. The next serve saw Jackson and Lauren Matthews team up for a block assist before a kill from Avri Davis gave WKU a 26-24 win and 2-0 lead in the match. The Tops hit .367 in the set while holding the opposition to a .115 average.

Up 2-0, WKU cruised in the final frame for the squad’s third sweep of the season. Dieudonne would open the set with an ace and the Tops would lead the rest of the way to a 25-12 third-frame victory. The Hilltoppers worked at a scorching .524 offensive clip while the defense stifled the Billiken attacked, holding them to a -.042 mark.

Matthews would convert for a kill on each of her last eight swings of the match. She finished with 11 kills on 15 swings for a .667 hitting percentage to go along with five blocks and a dig.

Dieudonne racked up 37 assists in addition to her two digs, two blocks, ace, and kill. The senior facilitated the Tops to a .387 hitting clip.

WKU’s defense was led by 10 digs from Logan Kael while Briggs added nine more. Briggs also added nine kills, two aces, and a block.

The Hilltoppers held Saint Louis to just a .047 hitting percentage on the match – the third time this season holding an opponent to a sub-.100 mark.

WKU 3, EVANSVILLE 0

Matthews opened the second match with a kill for a WKU lead and the Tops would never trail, claiming the opening frame against Evansville 25-16. The Red and White pushed ahead to a 12-7 lead off a Davis kill to force a UE timeout. Out of the break, Matthews found the floor for a kill and Ashley Hood followed with one of her two aces in the contest. Back-to-back blocks from Briggs and Isenbarger gave WKU a 20-11 advantage. Four points later, Sam Canner registered the first block of her career as her solo stuff made the score 22-13. A few points later, Canner would give the Tops set point following a kill before Dieudonne and Matthews teamed up for a block to win the set.

After Evansville struck first in the second set, the sides would trade points out to a 3-3 tie before back-to-back attack errors from UE gave WKU a lead it would not relinquish. The Purple Aces called timeouts trailing 7-4 and 14-6 but couldn’t find an answer for the all-around effort by the Hilltoppers. WKU would ultimately take a 2-0 lead in the match with a 25-14 second-frame win. The Red and White worked at a .345 offensive clip while holding UE to an even .000.

The Purple Aces opened the third set with a block but a kill by Matthews and UE attack error would give WKU the lead for good. In Kael’s first trip to the service line in the set, the senior recorded back-to-back aces to give the Tops a 10-4 advantage and force a UE timeout. The Aces were able to side out coming out of the stoppage but WKU would rattle off the next six points for a 16-5 lead behind the serve of Dieudonne. Shannon Keck and Kayland Jackson teamed up for a block for the 16-5 advantage, the first of Keck’s career. Four points later, Keck and Jackson stuffed another attack for an 18-7 lead. A kill from Jennifer Rush gave the Hilltoppers match point before Matthews found the floor for a kill to send the Tops home with a 25-11 third-set win.

WKU’s defense held Evansville to a -.160 attack rate in the final frame which made the Aces’ final average on the day -.021. The last time the Hilltoppers held an opponent to a negative rate was Sept. 17, 2016, when Robert Morris hit -.025 in a WKU victory. WKU worked at just a .278 offensive rate, its lowest of the season as the defense took its chance to shine.

“It’s such a blessing to be on this team because if we’re struggling on offense, we can pick it up defensively, and if we’re struggling with defensive our offense will have our back,” shared Kael.

Eight different Hilltoppers would record a block in the victory as the team would out-block Evansville 12-4 on the night. Matthews led the way and owns at least five blocks in every match this season.

Kael led WKU’s dig effort with 14 while Briggs joined her in double digits at 11. Dieudonne would finish with nine to go along with her 27 assists.

Davis hit .462 in the outing with six kills on 13 errorless swings. Jackson was close behind with a .455 rate and six kills to accompany her four blocks.

LOOKING AHEAD

WKU Volleyball will be back in action again next Sunday and Monday as Conference USA action begins with Florida Atlantic making the trip north. First serve will go up at noon CT both days. Both matches will be streamed and tickets are available for anyone interested in catching the match live.

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