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Paige Whipple shines, but Arizona volleyball gets swept by No. 23 UCLA

COLLEGE VOLLEYBALL: OCT 25 Oregon State at Arizona
Paige Whipple
Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Paige Whipple continued her late-season surge Wednesday with 21 kills against No. 23 UCLA, but the Bruins swept Arizona volleyball (20-25, 25-27, 22-25) in McKale Center.

The Wildcats were once again without three outside hitters—Shardonee Hayes, Whitnee Nihipali, and Elizabeth Shelton—due to injury, forcing senior libero Makenna Martin to play up front.

All three sets were close, with neither team leading by more than five.

“It was frustrating we weren’t able to execute at the very end of those sets to win at least one, but UCLA is a terrific team,” said Arizona coach Dave Rubio. “I mean, it’s an absolute mismatch for us against them, but our kids hung in tight and we just can’t execute well enough at the end of some of those sets to put us over the hump. It’s frustrating for them, frustrating for me, but in reality we’re playing with one arm tied behind our back, so it’s really difficult to think that we’re going to win a set or two or even a match.”

Arizona (15-16, 5-14) led the second set 23-21 but UCLA rallied to take a 25-24 lead before Whipple knotted it at 25-all with a kill from the left pin. Consecutive kills by Savvy Simo and Mac May clinched the set for the Bruins.

Rubio said the silver lining was the continued emergence of Whipple and Katie Smoot, who chipped in with seven kills. Whipple, who hit .246, was coming off a 29-kill match in Sunday’s upset of No. 22 Washington State.

“Those guys have really developed as legit outside hitters and their attack selection, their ability to score, the ability to function in their position, to blocking, every aspect of the game for them has gotten significantly better,” Rubio said. “And the reason why we’ve won sets and we’ve won matches is because those guys have really done a nice job along with Julia (Patterson)’s ability to kind of run the team and not get flustered, because we’re doing some crazy stuff out there.”

Whipple has posted career highs in kills (431) and hitting percentage (.194) as a junior after being the No. 2 hitter behind Kendra Dahlke in her first two seasons.

Whipple has logged 20 or more kills in three of her last four matches after only reaching that mark once in the previous 27 matches.

“The last two years have really prepared me for carrying a bigger load this year and I think the preseason was a little bit of a struggle for me, just trying to get into it and it was kind of eye-opening,” Whipple said. “But I’m in a big role now, and as the season’s progressed, not having a third big pin-hitter hasn’t necessarily put pressure on me but has just allowed me to play more free because there’s no one else that can step in and do it. So it’s me and Katie and we just have to get the job done. And so that’s just been exciting to play that role and carry even more than we expected to.”

Arizona’s five Pac-12 wins are tied for its fewest since 2009, and the Wildcats will miss the postseason for the second time in three years when the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed Sunday.

It hasn’t been for a lack of effort.

“I have no complaints in that department,” Rubio said. “And if the measurement for me was all about attitude and effort, it would be a 10 out of 10. It’s been a great year in regards to that, and I’ve really enjoyed this group. It’s frustrating not to win, but I’ve had seasons where I’ve won a lot and gone deep in the tournament, and it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as this particular year. I’m really proud of how they’ve hung in there in just really difficult circumstances. I mean, I think this is 16 matches now without our starting lineup and having our libero play left front. So I’m proud that they’ve hung in there and fought and are still fighting.”

Rubio expects the same Saturday when the Wildcats host Arizona State at noon in their season finale, though Whipple hopes to send the seniors out with a victory.

“Regardless of the outcome we want to walk away knowing that we gave everything we had and that we gave it all for the senior class who’s done so much for this program,” she said.

A senior, Martin described her time at Arizona as “amazing, beautiful, and hard.” She has missed most of her final season with an array of injuries.

“All I can say is it’s been a roller coaster and through the roller coaster everybody knows you face adversity, you face really fun times,” she said. “And when it’s fun, that’s when it’s easy. When it’s hard, it’s difficult. And I have grown so much through the process of not being able to do what I’ve been doing for basically my entire life.

“It was very humbling, and I view it as play every game like your last and not take one rep, one game, one match, one set for granted.”