LYNCHBURG, Virginia (KVIA) -- The Aggies' first season in Conference USA came to a close on Sunday at the hands of top-seeded Western Kentucky. NM State was held to a .174 hitting percentage, their seventh-lowest mark this season. The Aggies' potential final record is 21-10 after an eight-match winning streak was snapped in the championship. WKU extended their winning streak to 24 and clinched an automatic bid to next month's NCAA Tournament. The 22nd-ranked Hilltoppers are 29-4, and won their eighth tournament championship in 10 years as CUSA members.
Set-by-set: NM State loses 0-3 (21-25, 16-25, 25-27)
The match began with an impressive start for NM State. Darian Markham locked down the defense with a whopping 11 digs in the set, holding WKU to a .208 hitting percentage. The Aggies did take a 15-12 lead into the media timeout, but WKU put forth a much stronger second half of the set. Paige Briggs grabbed three of her seven first-set kills in a five-point span. The 5-0 WKU run prompted both NM State timeouts in the midst of a 13-6 closing run from the Hilltoppers. WKU took a 1-0 lead after winning 25-21.
The Hilltoppers took a more commanding lead in the opening moments of the second set, quickly getting out front 5-1. Starr Williams responded nicely with four kills in the set, including a kill on three straight points to take a 12-11 lead. The teams went back and forth, with WKU pulling slightly ahead 16-15. After that point, the Hilltoppers went on a 9-1 run, plagued by three attack errors from the Aggies. Darian Markham added another six digs in the set, tallying 17 after two sets of action. The senior libero would go on to finish the match with 20. WKU took the frame 25-16 and went up 2-0.
The Aggies put up their best fight in the final set, tying the score eight times and swapping leads three times. NM State tallied 18 kills to WKU's 15, and hit .342, easily their highest of any set. After the margin remained within two points for either team for the first 16 points, Izzy Van De Wiele collected kills on back-to-back points en route to building an 11-7 lead. The lead was still four points when WKU pulled ahead 16-12 on an Aggie attack error. The two teams split the next ten points, highlighted by one of Mari Sharp's four third-set kills and an additional ace from the senior. Ryleigh Whitekettle and Alexandria Connatser each grabbed a kill and a block as part of a 5-0 run to take a 22-21 lead. Back-to-back reception errors eventually gave WKU match point, before Connatser extended it with another kill. Kaylee Cox then landed the last of her 14 kills, immediately followed by an NM State attack error that ended the match at 27-25.
Head Coach Mike Jordan, on the loss: "Western Kentucky was exceptional defensively. They dug a ton of balls and kept some rallies going. They're a talented group. Their best players came up big in some big moments. They were just more consistent. We had a late lead in the first set, and we got stuck in that one rotation. Other than that, we outplayed them in a lot of ways. Set two, we got affected by double contacts, the calls, the complaining and the officials. Set three we showed a little grit. We were down the whole way and came back. We did some really good things, but just not consistently enough."
CUSA All-Tournament Team
- Kacia Brown, OH, NM State
- Ryleigh Whitekettlle, OH, NM State
- Starr Williams, OH, NM State
- Kaylee Cox, OH, WKU
- Abby Schaeffer, L, WKU
- Paige Briggs, OH, WKU (Tournament MVP)
The NCAA Division I Volleyball Selection Show will be held at 4:00 PM MT a week from now - Sunday, Nov. 26 - on ESPNU. NM State is not projected to receive an at-large bid, as the latest RPI rankings had the Aggies ranked 82nd. After the 64-team field is unveiled, if not selected, the Aggies will have a chance to participate in other postseason action such as the NIVC, but would need to receive and accept an invitation first.
Head Coach Mike Jordan, on the likelihood of the season continuing: "We have an invitation to the NIVC. We turned it down last year. I've turned it down a couple times in the past. I don't think you should ever turn down a postseason bid, but we need to have the resources to do it. This is a team that I think can compete with a lot of teams. I'd like to see them continue to play. Nothing's official, though."