It wasn’t a must-win on Friday night, but it was certainly a match that the Arizona Wildcats could have used. Instead, the Utah Utes came in and showed why they’ve climbed to No. 20 in the AVCA rankings by defeating Arizona 3-1 (25-20, 25-22, 21-25, 25-13).
Devyn Cross and Elizabeth Shelton tied Utah’s Dani Drews with a match-high 15 kills each. The Utes also had Berkeley Oblad and Zoe Weatherington in double-digits with 13 and 12 kills, respectively. The Wildcats looked for help that they could never find.
“We knew that we were really struggling on the left,” coach Dave Rubio said. “Our outside hitting is hitting well under negative and you know, part of that is we are passing not very good. And when our pass is not very good, then we’re not in system. And when we’re not in system, then our outside hitter did a really poor job of attacking around the block and off the top of the block and the edges of block anywhere, but they did a really good job hitting into the block.
“Like I said, the teams can get away with a lot of things and still be successful. Your setter can be average, your middles can be average, even your libero can be just average in this league. But if you don’t have good pin players, you don’t have good arms... And that’s what I said about ASU. They had better arms than we did. And tonight was the same case, you know. Devyn and Liz were trying to carry the load, and it’s just not enough. It’s easy to defend us when we’re only setting two people who can score and then the other people aren’t scoring. And part of that is not having a good enough pass to be able to keep us in system, which gives our outside hitters some space, and I think that’s the way it is for us this season. We have young outside hitters, and we’re having a tough time scoring on that in those pins. And until we can get better there, it’s going to be struggle for us.”
A major cause of those struggles for the Wildcats was that usually reliable Paige Whipple along with the less-experienced Whittnee Nihipali and Katie Smoot all had difficulty with errors. Whipple had only 2 kills on 17 attacks to go along with 5 errors. Smoot had 2 kills on 23 attacks and 6 errors. Both were deep in negative territory for hitting percentage, and Rubio opted to take Whipple out of the match.
“Paige really struggled tonight,” Rubio said. “And every aspect, I mean. She was having a tough time passing, and she’s typically one of our best passers. And if Paige struggles, she’s our number one six-rotation kid as an attacker and as a passer. Holy smokes! For us that’s like Julia (Patterson) struggling. So now we get Paige out and we got the kiddie corps out there trying to beat a really good team, and it’s just not going to happen.”
The struggles of the outsides presented challenges for Patterson and her setting. She spent the match trying to find a way to get the offense working.
“I think obviously, it was outsides,” she said about the nature of the Wildcats’ difficulties. “It was pretty tough kind of controlling and selecting which set to set where. And knowing that they were showing that they were in their heads, I was trying to help them get out, but they kept struggling. So, making sure that I can give Liz and Devyn as many opportunities as possible, but also not trying to set them up into the down block.”
Patterson and Shardonee Hayes tried to pick up some of the offensive slack. Each had 6 kills. Patterson hit .400 while also contributing 40 assists, 13 digs and 2 blocks. Hayes hit .667 and had 2 digs and 2 blocks.
What Hayes also had was an injury. Last year, the Wildcats fell victim to six concussions over the course of the season. They went into the Utah match with two injured liberos and a defensive specialist with mononucleosis, but they had yet to deal with a head injury this year. That streak is now over.
“We lost Shar,” Rubio said. “Shar is going to end up having a concussion. And so she’s out, so just add her to the list of IR. And that’s unfortunate, but Zyonna (Fellows) now is... you know, I’m running out of bodies. Now, I’m going to ask the press here to step in and put on a uniform here pretty soon.”
Things didn’t always seem so bleak. It started well for the Wildcats early in the match. They kept their noses in front of the Utes largely on the back of their opponent’s service errors until 11-11 in the first set.
A back-and-forth affair kept it close until Utah once again tied it up at 17. From there, the Utes went on an 8-3 run with one kill after another to close out the set.
Utah kept their roll going to start set two, eventually building the lead to 12-7. Arizona tried to fight back, closing the deficit to two points at 21-19.
It was too little too late, though. The Utes took the two-set lead with a 25-22 victory.
As in the first two sets, Arizona took the first point in the third set. This time, they were able to make it count and keep their heads above water.
Initially, it didn’t appear that would be the case, though. The set looked to be going in Utah’s favor, but they were never able to put the Wildcats away. At 21-all, Arizona put an end to the Utes’ run, extending the match with a 25-21 third-set victory.
Utah was not nearly as efficient in set three, while Arizona kicked their play up a notch. The Wildcats had 18 kills and only 3 attack errors. Utah had the same 3 attack errors, but had only 10 kills.
The loss only motivated Utah. The Utes came out with a vengeance in set four, and the Wildcats couldn’t respond. The end came quickly and brutally in 25-13 fashion to give Utah the 3-1 victory.
“Honestly, I think that our biggest thing tonight and previous nights is ourselves,” Shelton said. “I mean errors specifically. In order for us to be able to win in the future—and, like Julia said, not just the outside, but as a whole—we’re going to have to reduce our errors and kind of get out of our own way.”
While this match may not have been must-win, there’s a case to be made that Arizona must win against Colorado on Sunday. An 0-4 Pac-12 start could be too much to come back from. Rubio just isn’t sure if things are going to look better on Sunday.
“So we got two middle blockers and the two littles,” Rubio said. “The one position that’s got a little bit of depth is the outside hitting position, and, fortunately, we got one extra person there. But yeah, it’s not getting any easier for the Arizona Wildcats. That’s for sure.”
The Wildcats will be back on the court against Colorado at 12 p.m. MST on Sunday.