HOUSTON - Maybe the third time really is the charm. After two heartbreaking five-set losses to the WKU Lady Toppers last season, including the C-USA title game, the Rice Owls returned the favor on Saturday by snapping No. 22 WKU's 17-match win streak with a thrilling five-set (25-23, 25-21, 22-25, 23-25, 16-14) win at Tudor Fieldhouse.
Rice (18-8, 8-4) improved to 6-4 in five-set matches in 2015 and in the process handed WKU (23-3, 10-1) their first C-USA loss of the year. The victory over the Lady Toppers also gave Rice two, Top-25 victories in the season for the first time in school history. Rice defeated then No. 23 Colorado 3-1 back on Sept. 12 earlier this season.
"Today was fun, our team has been up and down all season but it seems like when we play strong opponents we step up our game," Rice head coach Genny Volpe said afterwards. "You can't fault either team, it was a battle to the very end and we happened to come out on top this time. It was great volleyball between two evenly matched teams that run a balanced offense. We match up well against each other."
The Owls posted season-highs in total kills (83) and assists (81) and had three players notch double-doubles. Sophomore setter Madison McDaniel, the reigning C-USA Setter of the Week, set a career-high with 70 assists to go along with 12 digs for her team-leading 15th double-double of the season. McDaniel became just the fourth Owl in school history to record 70 or more assists in a match and her performance on Saturday was the most assists collected by an Owl since Nil Kalagoglu posted 70 assists in 1998.
Rice junior outside hitter Leah Mikesky collected her 14th double-double of the season with a match-high 21 kills (.280) and 16 digs while senior outside hitter Noelle Whitlock achieved her ninth double-double of the year with 16 kills and a match and career-high 24 digs. Late in the third set, Whitlock became the 16th Owl in school history to surpass 1,000 career digs. She fellow senior libero Kimberly Vaio, who accomplished the same feat earlier this year.
The Owls jumped out to a 1-0 match lead by taking the opening frame 25-23 behind six kills from Whitlock and 14 assists by McDaniel. Rice took an early 2-1 lead in the set and never trailed the rest of the way, limiting WKU to a .222 hitting percentage.
In set two McDaniel orchestrated one of the best offensive sets of the season by guiding the Owls to a .465 team hitting percentage and a staggering 21 assists on 24 of Rice's kills. Mikesky and Chelsey Harris each had six kills apiece and freshman McKay Kyle chipped in five more en route to the 25-21 victory.
The Lady Toppers would rally though, winning the next two frames by scores of 25-22 and 25-23 to push the Owls to a fifth set for the 10th time this season. Rice quickly fell behind 5-1 but they were not to be denied on this particular day. The Owls responded with a 6-0 run to grab a 7-5 lead and force the Toppers to use a timeout.
WKU would eventually tie the set 14-14 but a kill from Mikesky and a hitting error from WKU sealed the 16-14 victory and the match win for the Owls.
"I saw it going a direction I didn't like to start the fifth set but the team's response and composure was amazing," Volpe said. "Madison did such a great job and worked her tail off the entire match. The rallies were long and she made a lot of key decisions."
The Owls will now have three days off before traveling to San Antonio to take on the Roadrunners on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 6 p.m.