All-Around Effort Leads No. 19 WKU to C-USA Tournament Crown
No. 19 WKU Volleyball saw five different Lady Toppers record double-digit kills while four players registered double-digit digs in one of the squad’s best all-around effort of the season en route to the 2019 Conference USA Tournament Championship win at No. 21 Rice on Sunday.
“This was another unbelievable match against Rice; what a showcase for Conference USA,” head coach Travis Hudson opened. “I wonder if we play them 10 times, if we wouldn’t end up in a fifth set every time. Our kids went out there and made plays at the end to get us over the top. This was two terrific teams going at it with neither one backing down.”
Lauren Matthews hit .541 across the three-day outing and brought home C-USA Tournament MVP honors for her efforts. Nadia Dieudonne, Sophia Cerino and Paige Briggs all joined Matthews on the All-Tournament Team. The 2019 recognition was a career first for all four Lady Toppers.
“Every single one of them earned that recognition,” Hudson said of the four All-Tournament honorees. “What I like is that they all do things beyond what shows up offensively. Lauren Matthews is leading the NCAA in hitting percentage, but I thought her impact in this match came from blocking and certainly ending the match with a block.”
WKU sits at 31-1 with its 27th-consecutive win while Rice owns a 26-3 record with two losses to the Tops.
“In January this squad decided they wanted to be special. Every step along the way, they’ve bought into what we’re doing and being a part of our culture,” Hudson stated. “This is special because it’s all been earned. It’s special because we’ve fought together and it produced a pretty amazing season.”
The Lady Toppers went out and delivered an all-around championship effort. Offensively, the Red and White worked at a .306 hitting clip while holding Rice to a .230 mark.
“We knew coming in that this game was going to be a challenge,” Lauren Matthews shared. “We knew we’d need to stay the course, do what we were told, go through our progressions and just stay locked in during the game.”
Championship play opened with a 4-0 Rice run before WKU rallied right back with a 5-0 run of its own. The Owls were the first to reach double digits with a 10-8 advantage but the Lady Toppers would push out to a 15-13 lead and the media timeout and led the rest of the way to a 25-17 first-set win. In the opening frame, WKU operated at a .357 hitting percentage while holding Rice to a .028 clip. The Lady Toppers racked up six blocks and three aces in the opening set alone.
After WKU scored the opening point of the second set on a Sophia Cerino kill, Rice worked out to a lead and never looked back en route to a 25-18 win to even the match at 1-1. The Owls were the first to double digits, sparking the first Lady Topper called timeout of the tournament. WKU made a late push to force a Rice timeout at 22-18 but the Owls closed the set on a 3-0 run. The Red and White were limited to a .121 hitting mark in the frame while Rice operated at a .269 rate.
Rice’s second-set win, ended a stretch of 14-consecutive sets won by WKU, dating back to the last time the sides met.
Trailing 15-14 at the third-set media timeout, WKU would tie the score up out of the stop. Rice worked ahead and was the first to 20 and the Lady Toppers called a timeout trailing 22-20. Out of the break, Briggs struck for a pair of kills and an ace to help the Tops tie the score at 23-23 and force a Rice timeout. After fending off three Owl set points, WKU prevailed in a 29-27 thriller to take a 2-1 lead in the match. The frame saw 22 ties and 10 lead changes while the WKU offense racked up 25 kills.
Set four was just as suspenseful, with 12 ties and four lead changes. After Rice pulled within one at 21-20, WKU scored three of the next four points for a 24-21 lead. It was all Owls from there, though, as the hosts closed the set on a 5-0 run to force a decisive fifth set.
Needing another fifth set to decide a winner between the league’s top two teams, WKU recorded back-to-back kills after Rice struck first and never trailed again. The Owls knotted the match at 4-4 before a Briggs’ kill sent WKU on a 3-0 run to force a Rice timeout. The Lady Toppers owned an 8-5 lead at the switch, the same lead Rice owned in the regular-season matchup. The Owls kept the margin at three as WKU pushed ahead to a 9-6 lead. A Dieudonne kill followed by a Rice attack error gave the Tops a 12-7 lead to force Rice’s final timeout. Out of the break WKU pushed to a 13-9 advantage before Matthews registered a kill to set up match point and a block to secure the championship.
“I think we were pretty relaxed in that final set,” Matthews added. “We knew we just needed to stay locked in and stay playing together and keep doing what we were doing because both teams were playing great.”
WKU Volleyball will learn its NCAA Tournament fate during the selection show on Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. CT. The show will air on ESPNU.
WKU is now 7-3 all-time against Rice and 2-0 against the Owls this season. The Lady Toppers and Rice have met three times in C-USA Tournament play – all in the championship match – with WKU claiming all three decisions.
Since joining Conference USA prior to the 2014 campaign, the Lady Toppers are now 15-1 in the league’s postseason tournament.
WKU Volleyball has now won five of six possible regular season and tournament championships since joining Conference USA prior to the 2014 campaign.
With a 31-1 overall record, WKU Volleyball secured the 11th 30-win season in program history and ninth under Travis Hudson. The Lady Toppers have won 30 or more matches in seven of the last nine seasons.
The Lady Toppers are now 2-1 against top-25 ranked teams this season, with both wins coming over Rice.
WKU has now won a program-record 27-straight matches with today’s win over No. 21 Rice – after surpassing the 2012 squad’s previous mark of 25 matches yesterday.
Sophia Cerino added four more aces and now owns 81 on the season. She already owns the program’s single-season record and sits in second on WKU’s career list, two aces past Melissa Starck for second at 176. Her 81 aces on the season put the senior in a tie for 10th most in the NCAA in the current scoring format (2008-present).
Lauren Matthews led WKU with double-digit kills for the 19th-straight match, recording a team-high 21 kills.
Five different Lady Toppers registered double-digit kills with Matthews leading the way at 21. Sophia Cerino (12), Paige Briggs (11), Katie Isenbarger (11) and Kayland Jackson (10) all joined in the effort. The Championship match was the first time in 2019 that five different Lady Toppers recorded double-digit kills
Additionally, four Lady Toppers recorded double digit digs led by Nadia Dieudonne’s 15. Logan Kael (13), Paige Briggs (11) and Emma Kowalkowski (11).
Paige Briggs tallied her 15th double double outing of the season with 11 kills and 11 digs.
Nadia Dieudonne racked up a career-best 61 assists and 15 digs for her eighth double double of the season.