It took four excruciating match points, but Rice volleyball finally put away Conference USA leader Western Kentucky in a heart-pounding match Saturday at Tudor Fieldhouse.
Rice junior outside hitter Leah Mikesky slammed home a kill to put Rice ahead 16-15 in the fifth set. Western Kentucky’s Alyssa Cavanaugh attempted to tie the game with her own kill, but the ball fluttered out of bound, setting of a jubilant celebration.
It was the first time No. 23 Western Kentucky (23-3, 10-1 in C-USA) had last a volleyball match since Sept. 11. Rice (18-8, 8-4) improved to 9-2 at home on the season with the 25-23, 25-21, 22-25, 23-25, 16-14 victory.
“Today was fun,” Rice volleyball coach Genny Vlope said. “Our team has been up and down all season. It seems like when we play strong opponents, we step up our game. You can’t fault either team today. It was a battle to the end.”
Rice has now beaten two ranked teams in one season for the first time in school history. The Owls defeated then-No. 23 Colorado on Sept. 12.
The five-set match was reminiscent of the last two times the Owls and Hilltoppers got together for volleyball. WKU won both of those 18-16 in the fifth set, including during the 2014 Conference USA Tournament title game.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s match, Volpe said she didn’t talk to her players much about that painful loss to close last season. She did show video of last year’s match to demonstrate how Rice attacked.
“It’s a new team and a new year,” she said. “We did share how we successfully attacked them last year. They’ve been waiting to play this match for a long time. It really shouldn’t be that way; we should be on point every match.”
When WKU won the third and fourth sets, some doubts crept into the head of Rice senior outside hitter Noelle Whitlock.
“It’s natural to go there, and we had a couple of those thoughts in the third and fourth sets,” she said. “It hurt us to second guess ourselves. But in that fifth set, we knew we were better than this team and that we could do this.”
A couple of Western Kentucky service errors helped Rice jump ahead 5-2 in the opening set. WKU closed the gap to 11-10, 12-11, 19-18 and 20-19 but the Hilltoppers could never tie it back up.
With the set 20-19, McKay Kyle unleashed a fierce kill to give Rice the point. WKU was then called for a double hit. A McKay block put Rice ahead 23-19. WKU closed it to 24-23, but Whitlock recorded his sixth kill of the set to clinch it for Rice.
“We passed well and we served well,” Volpe said of the first two sets. “I thought Western Kentucky wasn’t serving as aggressively as they did later on. That’s where it turned around for them. They had a conversation about getting us out of our system.”
The third set was close throughout, including ties at 15, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21. Kills by Alyssa Cavanaugh and Noelle Langenkamp helped the Hilltoppers take it 25-22. In the fourth set, Rice built a 19-16 advantage after a Mikesky kill. But Western Kentucky closed strong winning 9 of the last 13 points to take the set 25-23.
The Hilltoppers scored the first four points of the final set. Rice then erased that lead with a 6-0 run.
“I called an early timeout because I knew I had to stop their momentum,” Volpe said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever called a timeout that early in a set. But I saw it going in a direction I didn’t like. Our response wasn’t perfect, but our team’s composure today was amazing.”
Whitlock recorded 16 kills and 24 digs. She notched her 1,000th career dig during the third set. Mikesky led the Owls with 21 kills. Madison McDaniel had 70 assists.
“Madison worked her tail off the whole match,” Volpe said “Rallies were long. She had to make a lot of key decisions.”