It’ll go down as the Lady Toppers’ only two losses, indeed.

Western Kentucky’s historic season ended in a dramatic five sets against the Louisville Cardinals on Friday night in front of another record crowd at E.A. Diddle Arena.

The Lady Toppers fought with a furious comeback in the fourth set to force a fifth, and that’s when the Cardinals pulled away to take the final set 15-5 and win the match 21-25, 25-21, 25-22, 21-25, 15-5.

WKU’s memorable season that brought an NCAA Tournament to Bowling Green for the first time ended against the only team to defeat the Lady Toppers in 2019. Louisville’s 3-2 victory came in front of another record crowd of 5,023, topping Thursday night’s attendance by nearly 900 fans.

“Very worthy volleyball match to send somebody to a Sweet 16,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said. “To come in this environment and for us to get it to a fifth set to play them the way they did as composed and well as they did in that fifth set, this tournament is about finding out who’s playing the best volleyball in the country.

“Tonight, in that fifth set especially, that was the University of Louisville.”

WKU entered the match on an NCAA-best 28-match winning streak and a sweep over Kennesaw State in the first round to set up the rematch with Louisville. The Cardinals won the first meeting this year 3-1 exactly three months from Friday’s second-round rematch.

The Lady Toppers won the first set, then Louisville took the next two to put the pressure on WKU to stay alive in the fourth set. But the Lady Toppers responded with a fierce rally to win the fourth 25-21 and pull all momentum their way in a hostile environment.

But Louisville quieted the crowd quickly by jumping out to a 7-1 lead and taking the fifth set convincingly. WKU’s quest for a Sweet 16 berth in the NCAA Tournament and the program’s first win against Louisville in 17 attempts will have to wait yet another season.

“They’re a really talented team,” WKU sophomore middle hitter Katie Isenbarger said. “I don’t think it matters really that it’s Louisville. We look back at our season and there’s so much to be proud of and I think that’s what we think about after that game, and it’s so heartbreaking and sad that it had to end tonight. We feel we obviously all wanted to move on and there’s a lot to be proud of.”

The difference for the Cardinals came at the net in an otherwise dead-even match. Both teams had 58 kills and six aces and Louisville barely edged WKU in digs 64-62. The difference was the 16 team blocks for the Cardinals against WKU’s seven. Hudson chalked it up to first-serve contact that gave WKU issues for the second straight night.

“This was a slugfest,” Hudson said. “Our kids went toe-to-toe with a team that is deservedly playing in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and when you look at the stat sheet, it was a balanced stat sheet across except for that final score in that fifth set.”

Louisville will move on to play Texas in the Sweet 16 next weekend.

“Amazing battle tonight,” Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. “Hat’s off to Bowling Green and the community and Western Kentucky in general. The atmosphere was amazing. I’ve been in some good atmospheres and that was definitely top three.”

The Lady Toppers took advantage of that crowd by setting the tempo for the home crowd. WKU led by as many as five points in the first set before Louisville tied it up with a block at 14-all. The Cardinals moved into their first lead at 16-15 on a kill from Aiko Jones. A 5-1 run by WKU forced the Cardinals into a timeout after a long strike from Paige Briggs in the middle to make it 20-17.

A net violation set up WKU’s set-point and Briggs ended it with her seventh kill to take the game 25-21.

Briggs kept that hot hand going and earned her 11th kill to make WKU’s lead 11-7 in the second set. A call originally ruled an attack error on Jones was challenged and overturned, helping Louisville tie the set at 12-all. That helped Louisville’s 11-0 run that eventually was snapped by Sophia Cerino’s tap on the right side of the net. WKU only got as close as three points and made a late push with a 3-0 spurt to pull within 24-21.

Anna Stevenson’s kill deflected out of reach to seal Louisville’s 25-21 Game 2 win and tie the match at 1-all going into the locker room. Jones was the difference in that second set with five kills and the Cardinals held at the net with five blocks, holding WKU to a .109 hitting percentage.

WKU earned the first point again on a kill from Kayland Jackson and built six-point lead at 11-5 after a successful challenge from Hudson. But the Cardinals found another rally and tied it at 19 after another challenge by Hudson, but the call stood for Louisville, which took off from that point.

The Cardinals rolled and took a lead in the match when another kill from Aiko Jones gave Louisville the third set 25-21. It marked the first time WKU trailed in a match since FAU won the first set on Oct. 11.

WKU again took the first point on a kill from Matthews, but Louisville took the lead immediately and led by five until the breakthrough.

Isenbarger held strong at the net and a few errors by Louisville helped the Lady Toppers spark a 7-0 run to electrify the Diddle Arena crowd. Cerino capped the fourth-set rally with a kill to force the fifth and deciding set.

Then it was like Louisville flipped the switch, jumping out to a 6-1 lead and never giving WKU a shot at another comeback. WKU struggled with a rolled ankle from junior setter Nadia Dieudonne in the fourth set and a minor foot injury to Cerino. The Cardinals hit .667 percent in the fifth set.

“I think we all know we weren’t at our best,” Dieudonne said. “That fifth set caught us by surprise, I guess. I don’t know if momentum felt good in the fourth set but the fifth set, Louisville just came out and it was hard to stop them.”

Briggs finished with 19 kills and Matthews finished with 17.

“Before we hosted this regional, I said hosting the NCAA Tournament is going to shine a spotlight on WKU,” Hudson said. “… Nights like tonight you usually spend all your time in what if and if we could’ve got this break. That’s not who I’ll be. I’ll be so full of gratitude for the journey these kids took me on this year. And for this incredible institution that I represent.”{&end}

– Follow WKU athletics beat writer Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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