Volleyball falls to undefeated Hilltoppers in C-USA tournament

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Photo courtesy of UTEP Athletics

UTEP volleyball celebrates its first Conference-USA tournament victory in a decade over Marshall, April 1.

Michael Cuviello, Sports Editor

After winning its first Conference-USA (C-USA) tournament match in a decade against Southern Miss in a straight-set victory, the UTEP Miners ran out of steam against the Western Kentucky (WKU) Hilltoppers, the lone undefeated team in C-USA losing in straight sets.

The 19th nationally ranked Hilltoppers won its second straight C-USA tournament with a three-set victory over the Rice Owls in the championship game. For the year, WKU lost only four total sets in the season while winning 63 total sets.

“Our city is proud of our program,” head coach, Ben Wallis, said. “The one thing that you can say about a city like El Paso is that once (it sees) somebody is showing progress and that they want to win and are competitive, people are going to come out and support you.”

UTEP had won 15 straight sets and five straight matches coming into the C-USA semifinal. The Miners now fall to 0-10 lifetime against the Hilltoppers in matches and have never won a set against WKU.

“A top-20 team that has weapons exposed us today with our inexperience,” Wallis said.

Starting off the first set with a kill from junior Paulina Perez Rosas, the Miners took the lead early 1-0 as both teams went back and forth until WKU pulled out to an 11-9 lead. From this point, the Hilltoppers’ frontline took over as WKU scored the next six points of the match to extend its lead to 17-9.

The Miners were able to run off two straight points as the team fought back to trail 17-11, but for the rest of the match that would be as close as UTEP would be able to get to WKU as the Hilltoppers won the opening set 25-13.

In the second set, an early seven-point run had the Hilltoppers leading 9-2. The Miners would be unable to get any closer than that margin for the rest of the second set as WKU won 25-9 in a commanding fashion.

The young Miners came out early in the third set with its back to the wall, showing some fight as UTEP jumped out to a 7-3 lead over WKU. The Miners made multiple forced errors as the Hilltoppers went on a devastating 14-point run to take a commanding 17-7 lead. The Miners were able to muster only four more points for the rest of the match as UTEP fell in the third set 25-11.

Leading the way for the Hilltoppers was Lauren Matthews and Paige Briggs, who had 11 and 10 kills, respectively. Overall, WKU had 45 kills to 21 for UTEP. Leading the Miners in kills was Ross with six kills and Serena Patterson with 5. WKU had 35 digs to the Miners’ 18 for the match.

“I thought Patterson had a good day,” Wallis said. “I thought she was in control of what she was doing.”

Four players for WKU hit for .500 or better and middle blocker Matthews hit for .471.

“The two skills that helped us win a lot all year were the serve and the reception game and they both weren’t there today,” Wallis said. “We had too much inexperience out on the floor to beat a high-level team.”

For UTEP, it was a disappointing end to a great season which saw the team finish second overall in the West Division. The Hilltoppers were the more experienced team and featured three first-team all-conference players in Briggs, Matthews and Nadia Dieudonne. Dieudonne led the conference in assists with 12 per game. Matthews led the conference in blocks with 87 and was fifth in the conference in kills with 266 overall.

UTEP had its first winning season since 2012 in Wallis’s second season as coach. Senior Cheyanne Jones finished her finest season for the Miners with a first-team all-conference selection that saw he finish second on the team in kills with 152 and post an attack percentage of .322. Jones was the lone senior on the team.

Patterson was named second-team all-conference and Ava Palm was named to the all-freshman team for the Miners.

The Miners will return a much more experienced team next season that now knows what level it will have to play to reach the conference’s next level.

Michael Cuviello may be reached at [email protected] @dlockz on Twitter.