Midway through the second set of the Arizona Wildcats’ match vs. Illinois State on Saturday, Dave Rubio pulled his starters.
He had seen enough.
“I thought they gave up and I thought they gave up early,” the Arizona head coach said. “I could sense that they were letting go of the rope and I tried to reel them back in and have them fight.
“And by the time the midway point came, I was like ‘I’m done. I’m just going to let the starters regroup.’”
But the team never regrouped, and Arizona was swept by the visiting Illinois State Redbirds (27-25, 25-12, 25-23) in their nonconference finale.
“A young team does exactly what we did,” Rubio said. “They just give up hope. Against a good team we’re going to get dominated, which we did. The good news is after halftime we fought back and put ourselves in position to win that (third) set, unfortunately that didn’t happen."
The Wildcats dropped to 6-3 on the season, with all three losses at the hands of mid-major teams. Arizona had not lost to multiple mid-major teams in a season since 2012.
The Redbirds celebrated boisterously after the match.
“With the reputation of the conference, I think it’s always a big deal when a mid-major beats a Pac-12 team and I think it’s a big deal based on how they were celebrating,” Rubio said.
While Arizona was dominated in the second set, the first and third sets were far closer.
Arizona led 23-21 in the first set, but the Redbirds rallied to a 27-25 victory. The Wildcats led the third set 23-22, but Illinois State reeled off three straight points to complete the sweep.
“We were pretty close, but that team’s too good for us right now,” Rubio said. “We’re not in their league yet. It’s going to take us a little while to play steady enough to compete with them."
Which is concerning since Pac-12 play begins Thursday when Arizona takes on ASU in Tempe, and middle blocker Devyn Cross said UA’s non-conference schedule was “not even close” to the difficulty of their conference schedule.
“Talent-wise we have everything that we need,” Cross said. “It’s just going to be the execution and mindset that we have going into the (conference) season.”
And Rubio isn’t sure if his young Arizona team can add that before conference play begins.
“I don’t really look at it that way,” he said. “The improvement needs to come from a skill standpoint, an aptitude standpoint, but also the mentality standpoint, too. Going through these tough matches … will help us improve in that area. We have to go through those things before we become good at them.”
Outside hitter Elizabeth Shelton, who had a team-high 12 kills in the match, was noticeably down after UA’s loss.
“Considering how much talent we have on our team and whatever experience we may have, we shouldn’t be losing to anybody,” she said.
“Because we have the chemistry now, we have that cohesion, when we work together I think we’re an unstoppable force that other teams are going to have to deal with. So I think once we’re all on the same page mentally and realize how strong we are and how capable we are, we don’t have to worry about coming up short or losing to anyone."
Shelton said Arizona’s players are often worrying about the wrong things during a match.
“I know sometimes I overthink things and that’s when I start making errors instead of just playing hard, and I see that happen to us sometimes,” she said. “I think at the end of the day, once we all get that mentality of ‘hey, no matter what mistakes we make, it’s what happens after the mistake, not the mistake itself.’ .... then we’ll be good."
Arizona won the first two matches of the Wildcat Classic on Friday, beating William & Mary and New Mexico State, giving them momentum heading into Saturday’s finale.
Nothing came of it, besides a Redbird celebration near center court.
“I can’t speak for anyone, but no one is going to be happy about losing,” Shelton said. “Losing sucks. The way that we lost, we had so much potential and we didn’t hit ‘go.’”
Arizona was supposed to play Florida A&M and No. 20 Florida State last weekend in Tallahassee, but the matches were canceled due to Hurricane Irma — a missed opportunity for Arizona to gain valuable experience.
“Every weekend your team evolves and things change on your team,” Rubio said. “The competition tends to tell you which direction you need to go and what your team needs, so last week we didn’t get that.
“This week I think we made some good improvements from the week prior, but it’s hard to say where we’d be if we played those matches.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire