Conference USA Final: WKU vs. Rice 040321

Western Kentucky players celebrate Saturday during the Conference USA Tournament championship match against Rice in Hattiesburg, Miss.

The Western Kentucky volleyball team is the Conference USA champion once again.

No. 19 WKU claimed its second straight tournament title and sixth in seven seasons in C-USA by defeating Rice 3-1 (25-20, 25-19, 21-25, 25-22) Saturday in Hattiesburg, Miss.

“What a day, what a match. Nothing was surprising to me about that match. You knew it was going to be an absolute slugfest,” WKU coach Travis Hudson said. “I guess maybe the only thing that was surprising is that it didn’t end up in five sets – it seems like it normally does when we play Rice. What courage by our team. We were playing really well early and then Rice raised their level, and we had to just find a way to make plays at the end and we did.”

The victory moved the Lady Toppers to a perfect 21-0 on the season – the first time in program history it has gone undefeated through the regular season and league tournament, and it came after having the season moved to the spring from the fall when it’s traditionally held due to the COVID-19 pandemic. WKU will now wait to see where it lands in the NCAA Tournament after earning the league’s automatic berth. The bracket is set to be released Sunday, and the tournament will take place April 14-24 in Omaha, Neb.

“This one feels pretty special knowing this was kind of a bonus season for me as a senior,” defensive specialist Hallie Shelton said. “It just makes me that much more excited that I was able to get this third one in an extra season and knowing this same exact team is coming back next season, it just makes me so excited and eager for next season. I’m just so happy to have that third ring and super proud of my team.”

WKU entered C-USA on July 1, 2014, and has dominated since. WKU has a 126-7 record against C-USA opponents during that stretch, and the only season the program didn’t win the league’s tournament title was 2018.

Starting Thursday, it was business as usual – more wins.

WKU knocked off North Texas in the first round in straight sets and the following day swept UTEP to enter Saturday’s championship with only three sets lost all season, and only one of those came against league competition.

The Lady Toppers jumped out to a 2-0 lead against a Rice (16-5) team that hadn’t lost in C-USA play this season, had recently beaten Texas – the nation’s second-ranked team – and came in ranked 24th nationally in the latest AVCA poll.

WKU closed strong in both of those two sets. Down 16-15, WKU reeled off three straight points capped off by an ace from Paige Briggs to take an 18-16 lead. After a Rice timeout, the Owls knotted things up 18-all, but WKU scored six straight points behind the serve of Cameron Mosley to pull ahead before finishing off the set 25-20.

Even 15-all in the second set, WKU scored five of the next seven points to take a 20-16 lead. After a kill from Nicole Lennon – one of the C-USA Player of the Year’s two in the set after posting seven in the first – and a block by Satasha Kostelecky, the Lady Toppers used a 5-0 run capped off by two kills from Briggs to go up 2-0.

Briggs was named to the All-Tournament team after posting 11 kills and 15 digs. Nadia Dieudonne was also named to the team, with 52 assists and eight kills Saturday, and Lauren Matthews was named the tournament’s MVP. She had hit .500 with 20 kills, three digs and three blocks in the final.

“Those games are what we play for – the tight matches,” Briggs said. “Just playing as a team and sticking together, they’re so fun. I can’t say how proud I am.”

While not honored individually after the match, junior middle hitter Katie Isenbarger was strong throughout. She had five kills and was hitting .714 through two sets, and finished with 10 kills and a .500 hitting percentage in the match. But defensively, with her three blocks, she was just as important.

“I just met with our team in the locker room and it was my first comment, that Katie Isenbarger was the difference in this one today because, not only did she have a good offensive match, but (Anota) Adekunle is one of the best offensive players in the country for Rice, and Katie did an unbelievable job keeping her in check,” Hudson said. “That was a huge, huge, huge part of the match because we were able to keep her out of it in terms of what she normally does.”

Adekunle finished with seven kills and a .214 hitting percentage, after entering as the league’s leader in hitting percentage at .475.

Rice used a 9-2 run in the third set to jump ahead 13-9, before WKU battled back to even things 15-all. The Owls followed with four straight points, capped off with an ace from Sahara Maruska, and closed on a 5-2 stretch to take the set 25-21 and keep the match alive.

The Owls were determined for a five-set match and held a 21-17 lead in the fourth set, but the Lady Toppers closed strong again.

Lauren Matthews recorded a kill to get the ball in Ashley Hood’s hands, and the Lady Toppers continued to make it a 6-0 run behind her serve. Lennon recorded her 22nd kill of the match, but a block from Dieudonne got the ball to Shelton to serve, and a block from Matthews closed the set 25-22 and the match 3-1 – the same way last season’s championship match with Rice ended in the fifth set.

“It feels pretty good, especially the way it ended,” Matthews said. “It’s almost kind of unbelievable and mind-blowing that Hallie was serving once again and then the same block – it was just like deja vu.”

Lennon was named to the All-Tournament team, adding eight digs and three blocks to go with her 22 kills. Maruska and Carly Graham were also on the team, as was Charlotte’s Emani Foster. Maruska had 12 kills and 11 digs Saturday, and Graham had 46 assists, seven kills and eight digs.

The NCAA Tournament selection show is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. and will be aired on ESPNU.{&end}

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