TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Wildcats (22-10, 11-9) had one last chance to make an impression on NCAA selection committee Friday night. And, oh, yeah...
They also had a rivalry game to win.
“I got on them a little today in practice,” Arizona coach Dave Rubio said. “I’m like, ‘You know, it’s really about trying to get momentum going into the tournament. If we’re too nonchalant, too happy, and not really focused on being sharper,’ I said, ‘we’re going to be disappointed, win-or-lose, in this match’. I think they took that to heart and really dialed it in tonight.”
The Wildcats came out looking like they had a point to prove, and it took only three sets for them to prove it, as they emerged victorious 25-12, 25-17, 25-23 in short order.
In the first set, ASU (14-18, 5-15) struggled to get anything at all going. After taking the first point of the set, they never led again.
Stringing points together was nearly impossible for the Sun Devils. They would only score more than one point at a time twice in the entire set—and those “runs” consisted of just two points each.
On the other side of the net, everything looked easy. The Wildcats put together a 4-0 run, and followed it with a 5-0 run. Then, they threw in a 6-0 run.
It was obvious that it was Arizona’s night when Kendra Dahlke extended a rally with the equivalent of a kick save, shooting her foot out to keep the ball off the floor. The ‘Cats won the point to go up 14-7 in the first set.
From there, Arizona went on a 11-5 run to close out the first set 25-12.
The Wildcats wasted no time taking control of the second set. They opened on a 7-2 run to force an ASU timeout. From there, the teams traded points, neither going on any extended runs, until Arizona put an end to it 25-17.
With their backs against the wall, the Sun Devils had to hope that they could replicate the comeback their football team put together earlier in the day.
ASU opened the set taking the first point—their first lead since 1-0 in the first set. Unlike the previous sets, this wasn’t just a prelude to Arizona putting their foot down and leaving their opponent in the dust.
Alyse Ford took control for her team, finding the floor seven times in the third set. It just wasn’t enough.
Arizona played a team game, getting contributions from everyone who stepped onto the court and keeping the Sun Devils from getting their footing. At 23-21, Dahlke got a rare service ace, giving the Wildcats match point.
ASU tried to hang on, saving two match points on back-to-back kills by Claire Kovensky. They seemed to have momentum and a chance to force another set. Strangely, they broke that momentum by calling time-out at 24-23. Devyn Cross responded with a block of Megan Beedie’s attack, putting an end to the match.
“I just told the team that we haven’t been that sharp for a while,” Rubio said. “It’s been (since) we played at Oregon State and had a full line-up at Oregon, and then a couple of times during the preseason, non-conference season.”
The sweep gave the Wildcats win number 22 for the season, doubling their win total from last season. The eleven-match improvement ties the second-largest single-season gain in program history and the largest since they became Division I.
The win also gave Arizona an 11-9 record in Pac-12 play, landing them in fifth place after a tenth-place finish last season. That’s an improvement of six victories in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
Playing as a team
No individual player was dominant for Arizona. Instead, they shared the load in what was an efficient match.
Dahlke led the match in kills, but didn’t have her usual gaudy numbers. Still, she managed a double-double with 11 kills and 10 digs.
She played an extremely clean game, committing just three errors in her 32 attacks and ending up with a .250 hitting percentage. She also threw in a solo block, an assist and a service ace.
Paige Whipple and Julia Patterson barely missed double-doubles of their own. Whipple had ten kills and nine digs, while Patterson had 30 assists and eight digs.
Like her fellow hitter, Whipple played a clean, efficient game, with only three errors on 25 attacks for a .280 hitting percentage. In fact, the entire team had only eight errors on 86 attacks for a .337 hitting percentage.
On the other side of the net, the Sun Devils hit .087. ASU struggled to find 32 kills on 104 attacks and 23 errors.
Those errors were just one manifestation of Arizona’s successful blocking. The Wildcats had nine total team blocks. Devyn Cross accounted for five of those, while Shardonee Hayes and Patterson threw in three apiece.
The case for the postseason
Arizona has likely done enough to secure an NCAA Tournament berth. Earlier in the week, Rubio said he didn’t believe they would keep Arizona out if they swept their matches this week. Still, when the Wildcats gather to watch Sunday’s selection show, there might be a little doubt hanging over them.
In their favor, they went 6-9 against the RPI top 50. They added a 4-1 record against teams ranked 60-86, giving them a 10-10 record against the top 100.
The problem was the extremely weak non-conference schedule. Ten of the Wildcats’ twelve non-conference matches were against opponents ranked ranked outside the RPI’s top 125. Six of those matches were against teams outside the top 200. Their only non-conference opponent inside the top 100 was New Mexico State, who split the home-and-home matches against Arizona.
The NCAA Selection Show will air on ESPNU at 6:30 p.m. MST on Sunday, Nov. 25. It will also be streamed on ESPN+.