Tops win third straight C-USA Tournament; Seventh in eight season
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) - For the seventh time in the last eight seasons, WKU Volleyball won the Conference USA Tournament. Five of those victories have come over Rice, including Sunday’s four-set win. The Hilltoppers and Owls have met in the championship match in each of the last three seasons, with WKU coming out on top in all three.
“Man, what do you say,” began head coach Travis Hudson. “I say this over and over and over again; this is not about me, but I’m in the presence of a really special group of student-athletes. To see how many times they’ve persevered in so many kinds of situations and settings, it’s a special, special time for our program and I’m trying to enjoy every second of it.”
No. 18 WKU Volleyball climbs to 27-1 on the season including 20-consecutive wins with Sunday’s championship victory. The Hilltoppers are now 21-1 all-time in the Conference USA Tournament, including nine-straight wins in the postseason event.
[RV] Rice is now 19-6 on the season with the loss. The Owls are also expected to join the Hilltoppers in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s been fun playing against them every year,” shared Matthews. “It’s a tough matchup no matter what.”
Lauren Matthews earned Tournament MVP honors for the third straight season. Paige Briggs, Nadia Dieudonne and Kayland Jackson all earned All-Tournament Team honors as well.
“We did, we just kept playing,” continued Hudson. “There is no panic in our team, there’s just none. It’s because of the kids on the court and the leadership. Lauren Matthews after that first game and Lauren gets that look to her and she’s got this determination and it’s like get out of her way. You think Rice didn’t know the ball was going to go to Lauren Matthews as she had 21 kills. Really unique and special team and there’s a lot of love in that locker room.
WKU vs. [RV] Rice – 16-25, 25-14, 25-22, 25-20
WKU dropped the opening set of a match for just the fifth time this season as the Owls earned the 25-16 win for a 1-0 lead in the match. The division champs traded the first 10 point of the match out to a 5-5 tie before Rice pulled ahead for a 9-5 lead. WKU called its second timeout of the set trailing 15-9 and out of the break Matthews struck for back-to-back kills to pull the Tops within four. Rice responded right back and put together a 3-0 run to push its lead to 19-12 before ultimately claiming the set. Nicole Lennon tallied eight of her 17 kills in the opening frame for the Owls.
“And through just getting it handed to us in the first set,” continued Hudson. “How many teams go away in a tournament setting when they get beat 25-26 in the first set? These kids are just different and I’m a lucky man to be coaching them.”
Set 2 Avri Davis opened set two with a kill and the Red and White quickly exploded out to a 7-2 lead. Hallie Shelton struck for an ace and Rice used an early timeout. The Hilltoppers would double up the Owls for a 10-5 advantage, which quickly grew to 13-6 to force Rice’s second stoppage. WKU kept its foot on the gas, ballooning its lead to a 17-7 margin before ultimately taking set two with a 25-14 decision to even the match.
Matthews rattled off seven of her 23 kills in the second set. The Hilltoppers would lead from start to finish in the only frame that did not see a tie or lead change. WKU hit .457 in the second stanza while holding Rice to a .167 rate.
Set 3Rice responded back and scoring the opening point of the third set. WKU would be the first to double digits with a 10-7 lead and pushed out to a 17-13 advantage. The Owls were back within two at 17-15 before Jackson struck for her eighth kill and a three-point lead. A few points later, Davis shut down a Rice attack with a solo block and forced the Owls’ final timeout at 21-17. Rice would battle back within one at 23-22 but Matthews’ 18th kill of the match pushed the lead back to two before Briggs recorded a kill of her own to close the set with a 25-22 win and 2-1 lead overall
Set 4After WKU scored the opening point of set four off a Jackson kill, Rice battled right back and would force an early Hilltopper timeout at 8-4. Immediately out of the stoppage, WKU knotted the frame at 8-8 and would be the first into double digits at 10-9. The final tie of the match came at 15-15 before another big swing from Briggs gave the Hilltoppers the lead for good. Rice was right in it at 19-18 but could never match the Tops again. Matthews’ 21st kill of the day would set up match point at 24-20 before an attack error from the Owls sealed the deal.
Matthews racked up 20 or more kills for the fifth time of the 2021 fall campaign and 12 of her career. The Tournament MVP operated at a .421 hitting percentage in the championship match.
Dieudonne facilitated the Hilltoppers to a .317 hitting percentage, marking WKUs’ seventh-straight match operating above .300. The fifth-year setter tallied 55 assists while her hitters delivered a kill on 44.7 percent of her sets. Dieudonne added three kills of her own along with seven digs.
Jackson delivered another stellar postseason showing, racking up 13 kills for her eighth double-digit kill match of the season. She worked at a .458 hitting percentage.
Briggs finished with nine kills, nine digs, two assists, two aces and a solo block for an all-around effort.
Davis and Isenbarger both tallied eight kills as all five primary hitters for the Tops would finish at eight or more.
Shelton recorded eight digs, two assists and an ace. With her strike from the service line, Shelton now owns 184 career aces – the second most in program history. Already appearing in more matches than any other Hilltopper in program history, Shelton also broke the WKU record for sets played at 512. The previous record of 510 was held by Lindsey Gould (2006-09).
“She’s (Hallie) very steady from beginning to end,” Hudson said of the fifth-year defensive specialist. “She made some big plays for us at critical times, it’s hard to find someone that didn’t play well today”
Shelton and Logan Kael led the Hilltoppers in a perfect serve-receive effort in the win, both tallying 32 receptions. Kael added 10 digs of her own to go along with an ace and an assist.
As a team, WKU racked up seven aces from six different servers. Briggs tallied two while Dieudonne, Kelsey Brangers, Shelton, Kael and Isenbarger all added one. Neither Rice or UAB would record an ace against the Hilltopper serve receive on the weekend.
“We knew we had to stay aggressive, we knew they were even with us on defense and in the front row; we had to bring it at the service line,” shared Matthews.At the net, Matthews finished with four blocks while Jackson and Isenbarger both recorded a pair.
WKU Volleyball will learn where it’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament takes them on Sunday, November 28, when the NCAA Selection Show takes place.
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