Tops take down Rice in C-USA Championship
HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WBKO) -No. 19 Western Kentucky Volleyball earned their second-straight C-USA Championship after defeating Rice 3-1 in the conference tournament on Saturday.
“Nothing was surprising to me about that match,” WKU head coach Travis Hudson said. “You knew it was going to be an absolute slugfest. I guess maybe the only thing that was surprising is that it didn’t end up in five sets. “It seems like it normally does when we play Rice.”
WKU (21-0, 12-0 C-USA) jumped to a 2-0 lead after winning the first two sets 25-20 and 25-19. However, the Owls took set three 25-21 before the Tops sealed the win with a 25-22 victory in the fourth and final set.
“We were playing really well early and then Rice raised their level,” Hudson said. “We just had to find ways to make plays at the end and we did.”
The victory gives WKU its sixth C-USA Championship since joining the conference in 2014 and earns them a spot in the NCAA Tournament in Omaha, Nebraska.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Hudson said. “I know that sounds strange when you’re 21-0 but this has been the most difficult season that I’ve ever been a part of. Our players have had to grind every day to get through it and it has not always been fun but they’ve always been together. Players win championships and they won one for their old coach this weekend.”
Junior Katie Isenbarger was the difference-maker for the Tops in this match. Isenbarger finished with 10 kills on a .500 hitting percentage, along with three blocks. Coach Hudson said her impact on the game came from both the offensive and defensive said of the ball.
“Not only did she have a good offensive match but (Anota) Adekunle is one of the best offensive players in the country for Rice and Katie did an unbelievable job keeping her in check,” Hudson said. “That was a huge part of the match because we were able to keep her out of it in terms of the things that she normally does.”
Adekunle had 7 kills and was held to a .214 hitting percentage.
Junior Lauren Matthews made the final play of the match with a block against Rice. It was the same way she ended the C-USA Championship match in 2019, also against the Owls.
“It’s almost unbelievable and mindblowing that Hallie (Shelton) was serving once again and then the same block,” Matthews said. “It was just like deja vu.”
Matthews led the team with 20 kills and was named to the All-Tournament team along with teammates Paige Briggs and Nadia Dieudonne. Matthews was named tournament MVP.
Briggs added another 11 kills for the Tops in the win.
After the match, Hudson was overcome with emotion. WKU won its first C-USA Championship in 2014 in Hattiesburg and Alyssa Cavanaugh’s freshman year.
“We rolled in here and found a way to win that tournament in our first year in the league,” Hudson said. “I have felt her presence a lot down here this weekend and it was really special to win again in that city.”
Cavanaugh passed away last December. WKU has worn “AC” patches on their uniforms all season to honor her.
WKU will tune into Sunday’s selection show to find out who they’ll face in the tournament. The selection show begins at 3 p.m. on ESPNU.
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