With the win the Owls (12-3-3 overall) advance to the tournament's semifinal round on Friday (Nov. 7) at 3:30 pm (Central Time). The semifinal winners advance to Sunday's Championship Final at 1 pm where the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is on the line in a televised match.
Before Rice could think about advancing to Friday's second round, however, there was still a sizable obstacle in the way Wednesday. A talented Western Kentucky squad charged out to take six shots in the first nine minutes of the contest, including one blast from Alanna Clancy that hit the post before bounding-back for a follow-up shot by the Hilltoppers.
Rice survived the early assault and began to counter-attack. In the 16th minute, senior Gabriela Iribarne had the ball on the right wing deep in WKU territory and personally brought the attack to the center of the field. Iribarne was fresh-off a two-goal game last week against Charlotte and as the Hilltopper defense shifted to contain the threat, the senior from Mission Viejo, Calif., passed-off to Hughes in the keeper's box. From close a range Hughes needed only a quick touch on the give-and-go to find the back of the net for a 1-0 Owl lead.
Only the day before Hughes was announced as the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year on a vote of the league's head coaches. The Ottawa, Ontario, didn't coast after winning the honor. She scored in her sixth-straight game (dating back to Oct. 17) for her C-USA leading 13th goal of the season. Hughes is already the Rice career goals record-holder with 31 and she is now just one off the school's single-season mark of 14 goals by Caitlin Robbins in the C-USA Championship season of 2005.
"Lauren's just playing so well right now," said Rice head coach Nicky Adams. "You see that in sports where great players can get hot and be a difference-maker from game-to-game-to-game. She's in a zone right now, but it's not some accident. She's worked, trained and prepared herself to play at this high a level the whole season.
"I am really proud of the team for getting this win against Western Kentucky," coach Adams added. "(WKU) are talented came out ready like we knew they would. They put us under a lot of pressure and they fought to the very end with the ball right at our goal.
"It's been a while since we won a single game in this tournament, so that too was a step today," she continued. "The games will get even tougher now so we have a lot of work ahead, no question."
The win was Rice's first in the C-USA Tournament since 2011 when the current Owl seniors were freshmen. The team stretched its current win streak to a season-best five-straight games, the most since winning five in a row in 2010. The Blue & Gray has now reached the 12-win plateau for the first time in 2007.
Rice went on to close-out Wednesday's contest with 15-12 lead in shots, a 14-6 advantage after WKU's early offensive barrage. Czyz officially finished with one save on the way to the team's ninth shutout of the season. Her eighth solo shutout was the 26th of her collegiate career and her school-record 40th victory as the Rice keeper.