They had to fight for it, but Western Kentucky passed its biggest test.

The goal now is validating its victory by doing it again in the same area next week. WKU volleyball is on pace for its best regular season in school history and has a chance to at least claim a share of the Conference USA regular-season championship with two final matches this week in E.A. Diddle Arena.

No. 19 WKU (26-1 overall, 12-0 C-USA) will host Louisiana Tech on Thursday and then UAB for Senior Day at noon Saturday.

But that chance at a championship had to first go through WKU’s most challenging stretch of the schedule last weekend in Texas, particularly Sunday’s match at then-17th-ranked Rice. The Lady Toppers jumped out to a two-set lead before the Owls fought back to force a fifth set. WKU trailed 9-6 and won 16-14 in a battle of two teams coach Travis Hudson believes are NCAA Tournament bound.

More than anything, the victory in Houston proved WKU’s one-loss season hasn’t been a fluke.

“I think both of us were NCAA Tournament teams before this weekend,” Hudson said during a news conference Monday. “We certainly took the doubt out of it. It’s a win over a ranked team and adds a win over a top-25 team on the road. It checks off a lot of the boxes if any of them were unchecked for us.”

The Lady Toppers’ five-set win was by far the furthest they had been pushed since a five-set win over Northern Kentucky on Sept. 20. The team hasn’t lost since a 3-1 defeat to then-24th ranked Louisville in the fifth match of the year, giving the Lady Toppers the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games and the best overall record in the country.

Since that five-set win against NKU, WKU has swept 11 opponents and dropped just one set to three other opponents. One of those came at North Texas to start the Texas road trip Hudson knew would be the biggest measuring stick for his team led mostly by youth leading the offense.

Sophomore Lauren Matthews’ team-high .456 hitting percentage ranks first in the nation and freshman Paige Briggs is second on the team with 311 kills. Senior Sophia Cerino leads the country with 0.69 {span}aces per set, which also ranks first nationally{/span}.

Cerino had 16 kills and three aces against Rice and North Texas and Matthews had five kills alone in the fifth and deciding set against the Owls. The sophomore Indianapolis native averaged four kills per set and a .409 hitting clip across those two games.

Briggs had a double-double at Rice with 11 kills and 10 digs, which helped snap Rice’s 20-match home winning streak.

Going into the match, Rice ranked 15th in the RPI and 17th in the AVCA poll.

“Our four years now, (Rice) has always been a tough opponent and we’ve gone with them our freshman year to the conference finals,” senior defensive specialist Emma Kowalkowski said. “We wanted to be aggressive. We had nothing to lose in this match. We said all week the pressure is on them and the challenge is on us. We went to our hitters (and said) just swing away and we have nothing to lose in this match.”

That nothing-to-lose mentality goes with the culture Hudson has built in his 25th season leading the program. WKU has secured 20 straight 20-win seasons, but the Lady Toppers have a chance ahead of them to lock up a second undefeated record against Conference USA opponents, matching the 2016 Lady Toppers who went 30-3 and unbeaten in C-USA matches.

WKU is closing the season against two teams in the bottom four of the C-USA standings between Louisiana Tech (13-13, 3-9) and UAB (12-13, 4-8). A win in both matches would give WKU the championship outright and a split would share the regular-season title with Rice.

Hudson and Kowalkowski are making a charge for much larger crowds over the next two matches than the 478 average attendance so far this year.

“These kids have been through a lot the last 18 months,” Hudson said. “We had to overcome so many things and got dropped in the first round of the (conference) tournament, so for us to be where we are and put the season together that we have, we have a great fan base that comes and watches our team play. If you’re a Hilltopper fan period, I’m challenging you to be in Diddle Arena Thursday and Saturday.

“I’m a WKU basketball fan too and I’ve been in Diddle and seen all those seats filled. I know there’s enough people that wear the red and white that know their way to Diddle Arena. I’m asking. … If you’re appreciative, come watch these kids play in their last home matches and let them feel the support in this great fan base.”{&end}

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

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