Someone was going to get the monkey off their back. The Arizona Wildcats and Colorado Buffaloes came into their match on Sunday without a Pac-12 win between them. Fortunately for the Wildcats, it was their day to finally break through with the straight-set victory (25-13, 27-25, 26-24).
“It’s a pretty big deal to get a win any night in the Pac-12,” said junior outside hitter Paige Whipple. “Because (Arizona coach) Dave (Rubio) always says, once you start losing, you never know when you’re going to find another one. So, to come back after losing the first three games and get a sweep, it’s pretty exciting.”
In the end, though, it turned out to be more difficult than expected. After an extremely easy first set, the Wildcats had to scratch and claw to maintain the sweep.
“Every night is so different,” Rubio said. “When you play a Saturday or Sunday afternoon match is different than playing a Friday evening match. Part of it, Colorado is banged up and they have a lot of missing pieces because of injuries. And so, I think both teams, being 0-3, are trying to recover mentally and emotionally. And, physically, we’re banged up. We don’t have our full starting lineup. And playing at home, it’s a little bit easier than playing on the road. So, under those circumstances, that would give us the advantage.
“I knew that after set one, which was a pretty easy set for us, that it was going to be a tough match and it was. Every set was very close. And this match could easily have gone five, and we could leave with the loss. I mean, there’s not that much difference between the two teams. We just happen to play a little bit better at the end of every single set.”
Whipple led the match in kills with 14 on .209 hitting. She narrowly missed a double-double with 9 digs. She also had a .944 serve percentage with 18 serves, including 1 ace and 1 error.
Katie Smoot was close behind with 13 kills and .242 hitting. Smoot did get the double-double, adding 11 digs to her stats. She served 13 times, amassing 1 service ace and 1 error for a .923 serve percentage.
Smoot also helped the Wildcats in an area that had been an issue on Friday night: serve receive. She was targeted by Colorado servers 15 times—the second-highest number on the team—and had a perfect reception percentage.
“As the sixes get better, we’ll get better,” Rubio said. “Assuming everybody’s healthy, but when Kamaile comes back, Makenna comes back, our team really changes dramatically because of our ability to be in first contact mode. Part of the reason today our outside hitters were way better was because we were better first contacts, we were in system more. And so our hitters were playing with split blocks, had more space between the blocks.”
Elizabeth Shelton was the third Wildcat with double-digit kills, getting 10 kills on the day on .455 hitting.
Julia Patterson also had a double-double with 42 assists and 11 digs. Five kills and 3 blocks gave her 8.5 points.
Nothing was working for Colorado in the first set. They managed only 5 kills as a team and hit -.032.
Meanwhile, across the net, Arizona was getting help from unlikely places. It was setter Patterson and middle blocker Devyn Cross who tied for a set-high 4 kills each. Smoot was just behind them with 3 kills.
Patterson already had 7 assists, while defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua had 5 assists of her own. As a group, the Wildcats hit .371 in the opening set.
Arizona took the set 25-13, although it probably should have been an even more dominating performance. By the time the Wildcats reached 22 points, the Buffs were still at 8.
When Colorado rolled off three straight points, Rubio called timeout to get them back on track. It was enough to get them over the hump and close out the set.
Things did not go so smoothly for the Wildcats in set two. For the first half of the set, they maintained a comfortable lead of four points. Then, the Buffs got things working and knotted things up at 17 apiece.
Much like the football game between the two schools on the previous night, neither team could take control. Arizona didn’t fall behind, but they let Colorado tie things up again and again. Letting them hang around nearly backfired when the Buffs reached set point at 24-23.
The Wildcats responded with two straight points for their own set point. After a timeout, Colorado saved that to tie things up at 25. Arizona was finally able to gain the two-set advantage with a 27-25 victory.
The Buffaloes kept their momentum early in the third set, building a 10-6 lead. Their biggest lead in previous sets had been 3 points early in the second. They eventually pushed their final-set lead to 13-8, then the Wildcats got a real scare.
Libero Emi Pua’a, who is standing in for the injured Kamaile Hiapo and Makenna Martin, stayed down with what appeared to be a leg injury. As Arizona’s third libero and one of only two healthy littles, an injury to Pua’a would have been devastating. Rubio called a timeout, and Pua’a was able to return.
“I was asking her what happened,” Rubio said, “and she goes, ‘It’s kind of the same type of injury that Kamaile had.’ When you play defense against a hitter, the idea, technically, just you need to be stopped completely, weight-neutral and eyes on hitter. Well, these guys are moving. And, so what happens is the ball’s set to the left, they’re moving to the right, now the ball’s hit back to their left. And, so they’re playing like a pretzel, they’re playing Twister, and that’s what happened with Kamaile is she ends up doing the splits because she’s moving and righting and trying to recover to go to her left. Ends up doing the splits. Well, that’s the same thing that Emi did. If they were better just being stopped, they would be probably in a better, healthy position to make the move.”
Arizona came out and won two straight points, but Colorado was able to keep momentum on their side of the court. It looked like the Buffs would push things to a fourth set when they reached set point at 24-20.
The Wildcats didn’t want to see that happen. They would not allow Colorado to score again as they ripped off six straight points to take the final set by a score of 26-24.
“I think that in the third set, especially, we had to come together more as a team and find something more to play for than just for the win, because we were down by so much,” Smoot said.
For Whipple, that “something more” is each other.
“I think that is a huge piece of our team,” she said, “just our ability to individualize who needs what in what moments, and that helps us become a tighter unit when we need to be.”
Next week, the Wildcats (11-5, 1-3) will have to do that on the road against two top teams. They head to the Bay Area for matches against No. 3 Stanford and No. 19 California.