Kayland Jackson 11-23-19

Western Kentucky’s Kayland Jackson goes up for a kill during the Lady Toppers’ 3-0 win over Florida Atlantic in the Conference USA Volleyball Tournament semifinals Saturday in Houston.

Western Kentucky’s volleyball team secured a spot in the 2019 Conference USA Tournament Championship with sweeps on back-to-back days after Saturday’s NCAA-best 22nd three-set win over Florida Atlantic in Houston.

The 19th-ranked Lady Toppers picked up their 30th win of the season with a 3-0 (25-20, 25-20, 25-18) win over fifth-seeded Florida Atlantic.

“I’m really, really proud of the effort we put out there today,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said in a news release. “Florida Atlantic is such a talented offensive team. From an offensive standpoint, they gave us more problems during the regular season than anybody else on our schedule and they were tough again today.

“It wasn’t until that third set that they cooled off a bit. This was a real display of why we’ve had the year that we’ve had; we showed we can win in a lot of ways. We were really good offensively and served the ball really well as well and I’m really happy to be back in the championship.”

With Saturday’s win – and fourth consecutive sweep – WKU secured the 11th 30-win season in program history and ninth under Hudson. WKU has put up 30 or more wins in seven of the last nine seasons. WKU is now 30-1 on the season while Florida Atlantic closes the season with a 16-11 record.

The regular-season meeting between WKU and Florida Atlantic was an offensive shootout, but a solid defensive effort saw the Lady Toppers hold FAU to a .167 hitting clip in their first tournament semifinal match since 2005.

“This a team that has been a little bit strange to coach,” Hudson said. “They walk through this team like a bunch of veterans even though we’re a really young team. We haven’t had (to) talk a ton about preparation or keeping themselves ready. These kids are competitors and they’ve enjoyed the challenge of being ready every day.”

WKU’s offense turned in another strong effort, posting a .419 clip to work above a .400 rate on back-to-back days.

After a Florida Atlantic service error put WKU on the board first in Saturday’s semifinal match, Sophia Cerino struck for her first ace against the Owls this season. FAU owned a slim 5-4 lead before WKU scored three straight and seven of the next eight for an 11-6 lead it would not relinquish. The Lady Toppers pushed ahead to a 23-15 advantage before Florida Atlantic battled back within four at 23-19. Kills by Kayland Jackson and Lauren Matthews sealed the 25-20 opening-frame victory for the Lady Tops.

Florida Atlantic struck for the opening point of the second set, but WKU responded with a 5-0 run capped by another Cerino ace. The Lady Toppers pushed ahead to a 12-8 advantage before the Owls pulled back within one on a trio of occasions following a timeout. Up 18-17, WKU scored seven of the frame’s final 10 points to post another 25-20 win and take a 2-0 lead in the match.

Out of the break, Florida Atlantic struck for the opening point again before Cerino put the Tops on the board with a kill. From there, the sides traded points to a 6-all tie before a Paige Briggs kill gave WKU a 7-6 advantage and the lead for good.

The Owls called their first timeout trailing 13-9 and after seeing its lead slim to one at 14-13, WKU used a 3-0 run to push out to a 17-13 lead and force a second FAU stop. Florida Atlantic slimmed its deficit to two one last time at 17-15 before WKU took a 20-15 lead. Matthews and Cerino teamed up for a block assist to secure the 25-18 third-set victory.

Nadia Dieudonne racked up 39 assists in the sweep to go along with five digs, two blocks and a kill while facilitating the WKU offense to its fourth .400-plus offensive mark this season.

“Yesterday was not my best day, so today I really wanted to come out and make an impact for my team,” Kayland Jackson said. “Nadia (Dieudonne) was doing a fantastic job of setting the ball and moving it around. We were really flying around, making good digs to get her in a good position so that’s just a whole team effort.”

WKU will face second-seeded Rice, which defeated sixth-seeded UTSA in four sets, in the C-USA Tournament Championship. First serve will go up at noon CST from Tudor Fieldhouse on Sunday.{&end}

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