It wasn’t the kind of mismatch that Arizona football faced against the Oregon Ducks on Saturday night, but Wildcats volleyball (17-7, 6-6) was certainly the underdog against the Ducks (15-7, 8-4) on Sunday morning. Even with a full roster available, they would have been.
Unlike their gridiron counterparts, volleyball was not able to go against the odds and pull off the win. The four-set affair was close for three sets, but ended in a 25-22, 25-22, 22-25, 25-17 win for Oregon.
The Wildcats came into the match with an RPI of 37 compared to the Ducks at No. 23. They were ranked 23rd in the AVCA poll, while the Ducks sat at 16th. Oregon was in the top three of almost every offensive category in the conference. On top of all that, Arizona was without two starters.
Arizona coach Dave Rubio has described Oregon as having more depth than Stanford and being one of the quicker teams the Wildcats face. Yet, his team was able to hold their own for three sets despite being shorthanded.
In the first set, the two teams were virtually indistinguishable. Arizona had 16 kills to 14 by Oregon. Both teams had two service aces, while the Ducks outpaced the Wildcats in blocks 3-1. The Ducks also outpaced the Wildcats in errors—attacking, blocking, and service. Yet, when it ended at 25-22, the Wildcats found themselves down a set.
The second set proceeded much like the first. Ten ties instead of eight. Five lead changes as opposed to four. A final tie at 19-19. Oregon closing it out on a 6-3 run to go up 2-0.
The Wildcats came out much stronger in the third. The Ducks took the first point, but quickly fell behind. Arizona took the largest lead either team had amassed so far by pushing it to 9-5, forcing Oregon coach Matt Ulmer to call the timeout.
In previous sets, the timeouts had been very effective for Oregon. It was no different in the third, when the Ducks scored two straight coming out of the break to cut the lead in half.
The Wildcats were able to quickly regroup and stretch the lead, but they struggled to close it out. When Arizona pushed their advantage to 21-14, the set looked all but over. Oregon just didn’t agree.
The Ducks fought back, going on a 6-2 run to trim the lead to three points at 23-20. Arizona got to match point, but the Ducks still wouldn’t let go. They saved two, forcing Rubio to call another timeout at 24-22. Denny finally put an end to the third set out of the timeout.
“Oregon’s just loaded with talent. I mean, a plethora of talent,” Rubio said. “So, any time you play a team that talented, they’re always in a position to come back. For us, the first three sets were terrific. I have no problem with that. The fourth one, I could just throw back and start over again.”
It seemed like Arizona shook off the loss of momentum that came at the end of the third. The Wildcats scored the first three points of the fourth to take the 3-0 lead.
Oregon found their legs quickly. The Ducks ran off six straight points to go up 6-3. They never looked back.
After their opening run, the Wildcats struggled to string points together. A point by Arizona would be followed by two for Oregon. Two points from the Wildcats would be followed by three by the Ducks. The pattern continued until the visitors had pushed their lead to 13-7 and made Arizona call another timeout.
The timeout didn’t help much. Oregon continued their dominance, eventually extending the lead to seven points to reach match point. Unlike the third set, there would be no comeback mounted by the trailing team. The Ducks took advantage of their first match point, ending things with a score of 25-17.
Sophomore Paige Whipple led Arizona in kills with 14. Fellow sophomores Candice Denny and Katie Smoot each had 12 kills.
The Wildcats lacked efficiency. The highest hitting percentage by the sophomore trio came from Smoot, who hit .171. Attack attempts came back over the net far too often. Oregon was eventually able to capitalize on the lengthened rallies and execute at critical times.
In the case of Denny, she seemed to have more difficulty executing as the match wore on. Half of her kills came in the opening half of the first set, with her sixth putting Arizona up 14-13.
“Candice is in a crash course going from the middle to the opposite,” Rubio said. “Certainly, it plays well offensively for her, although she’s got to show a little bit more range as an attacker.”
In the end, the match turned on the entire team’s execution at critical times, especially in the first two sets.
“It came down to the last five points, and who’s going to execute from 20 to 25,” Rubio said. “It t was very similar to our match-up in Eugene. The difference today was that we executed better up there and they executed better down here.”
Junior setter Julia Patterson passed 2,000 career assists during the second set. She joined eight other Wildcats with at least 2,000.
Patterson had a double-double with 42 assists and 15 digs. That ties her with teammate Kendra Dahlke for the Pac-12 lead.