When No. 21 Arizona (18-7, 7-6) hosted No. 18 Washington State (17-6, 8-5) last month, the Wildcats took the first two sets before dropping the final three to lose the match. With the season winding down and postseason berths on the line, they hoped to return the favor on their trip to Pullman.
They did just that, winning the match in another five-set nail-biter 23-25, 25-20, 19-25, 25-22, 15-12. Most importantly, the victory over the RPI’s No. 10 team gave the Wildcats a big boost to their postseason chances.
It was a battle of the wounded, as Arizona played without Kendra Dahlke for a third straight match and WSU star Taylor Mims played sparingly after missing the last five matches.
For Arizona, matters were made even worse when middle blocker Devyn Cross and libero Makenna Martin were injured late in the match.
None of it stopped the Wildcats.
Sophomore Katie Smoot kicked off a strong night by putting the Wildcats up 2-0 in the first set. While she occasionally struggled with over hitting the ball throughout the match, she was instrumental in getting the win.
Smoot tied the Cougars’ McKenna Woodford for the match high with 22 kills. It was a career high for Smoot, whose previous mark was 17 against Oregon State. She threw in five total blocks to account for a match high 25.5 points.
Paige Whipple was only slightly outdone by her teammate. Whipple had a double-double with 20 kills and 12 digs, turning in 20 points on the night.
Candice Denny was the final offensive cog in the machine, finding the floor with 14 kills on a .429 hitting percentage. Her 14 kills were also a career high. She added six total blocks for 17.5 points.
Setter Julia Patterson was her usual steady self, assisting her teammates 58 times and getting 13 digs. She called her own number several times, as well, getting five kills on a .571 hitting percentage.
The first set was a close affair with nine ties and three lead changes. The two teams each had 16 kills, but WSU was slightly better serving and blocking.
The largest lead of the set was four by the Cougars, who led at 18-14 and 20-16. Arizona didn’t go quietly, though, pulling within one several times down the stretch before succumbing by a score of 25-23.
The second set was another close affair. It seemed to be developing in the Cougars’ favor for most of the set. While there were nine ties, the Wildcats did not take their first lead until 17-16. They closed it out on an 8-4 run to even the match at a set apiece.
Arizona looked like they had found their way at the beginning of the third, but WSU quickly recovered. The Cougars took the lead at 7-6 and never looked back. They would stretch their advantage to five points on several occasions before closing it out 25-20.
Arizona had their backs against the wall in more ways than one in the fourth set. Not only did the Wildcats need to sweep the final two sets against the third-best team in the conference, but they would have to do it without two additional starters.
Martin and Cross were both injured, becoming the third and fourth unavailable starters. Cross became the sixth Wildcat to suffer a concussion this season, while Martin suffered a groin injury.
Things didn’t look good at the beginning. Arizona fell behind 1-4 while committing three attack errors. Fortunately for the Wildcats, the Cougars started throwing in some errors of their own, allowing Arizona to close the gap.
The set developed into another nail-biter featuring eleven ties and five lead changes. WSU was the first to 20 points, opening up a three-point lead and looking like they would close out the match. Arizona just wasn’t quite ready for that.
The Wildcats fought back to tie it at 21-21. Then, they tied it again at 22-all before the Cougars finally gave way, allowing Arizona to close it out on a 3-0 run.
It would all come down to the 15-point set. In Tucson, WSU ran out to a quick lead before the Wildcats fought there way back into it, eventually losing 13-15. In Pullman, the script was flipped.
Arizona ran out to a 10-5 lead. Needing only five points to take the match, it looked like things were over. The Cougars didn’t agree.
WSU broke the momentum with a timeout. A Smoot service error. A Penny Tusa kill. An Olivia Coale service ace. The lead was suddenly cut to two points.
Arizona’s own timeout didn’t help. The break was followed by another Coale ace, slashing the lead to a single point at 10-9. The Wildcats just needed to hang on. They only needed to score one more point than WSU on the way to 15.
That’s precisely what they did. The teams traded points down the stretch, with Arizona barely outpacing WSU 5-3 to end the set and win the match.
With the win, the Wildcats went a long way to reserving their seat in the NCAA Tournament. Coach Dave Rubio said that he believed they needed to be in the 30s to get into the postseason. A win over the RPI’s 10th-ranked team should do that for them. They will also have another chance against a top 10 team when they face USC in two weeks.
In the meantime, Arizona has another opportunity to avenge a loss when they visit Washington on Sunday. The match starts at 1 p.m. MST and will air on Pac-12 Washington. It will not air on Pac-12 Arizona, which will show the ASU-WSU match instead.
Article updated with information about injuries suffered by Devyn Cross and Makenna Martin.