The Arizona Wildcats dropped a tight five-setter (25-19, 17-25, 27-25, 25-21, 13-15) to No. 11 Washington on Saturday, but came out like a different team than the one that was swept the night before. Dominant and in control.
The Wildcats won their first set of the season by making their opponent look like the inexperienced one. To some extent, they were. The Huskies lost Kara Bajema, their dominant outside hitter, to graduation. But they still started the season in the top 10 and certainly aren’t welcoming nine new players this year like Arizona is.
Senior star Paige Whipple was a big reason the Wildcats got off to a hot start, but young talents Dilara Gedikoglu and Emery Herman also helped the Wildcats dominate the first set and the beginning of the second.
Freshmen Jaelyn Hodge and China Rai Crouch added big contributions to help Arizona keep it close throughout. Fellow first-year player Joy Galles was a key part of the serve rotation.
But it was Sofia Maldonado Diaz who was once again the best player on the floor for Arizona throughout the match. The freshman lit up McKale Center with 25 kills on .439 hitting. It was the most kills by an Arizona freshman since Tiffany Owens had 25 against Arizona State on Nov. 7, 2007.
“She went insane today,” Hodge said. “She did so good in every aspect of the game.”
Maldonado’s 11 digs gave her a double-double. That made her the first Arizona freshman to have a double-double with at least 20 kills since Madi Kingdon in 2011.
Maldonado also threw in two assists, a service ace and three blocks. She tallied 27.5 points in the third collegiate start and fourth collegiate match of her career.
“Right now, she’s kind of just scratching the surface to how good she could be and will be,” Arizona head coach Dave Rubio said. “I’ve always been on the opposing team bench, looking at a player like that, ‘Oh, man, that player is really good.’ And it’s really nice to have someone of that level and that quality of player on our team.”
Rubio added that he didn’t know if he’d ever seen a freshman have 25 kills in just 41 swings, including Arizona greats like Kingdon and Kim Glass.
“Her hand-to-ball contact is exceptional,” Rubio said. “I mean, she could put her hand and move the ball around the block and the court. And her vision is exceptional. She does some things innately that she’s in the top one percent of all players in the country that can do what she does. If you talk to (Washington head coach) Keegan (Cook), he would say the same things. That kid, she can just flat-out play.”
Herman was just short of a triple-double with eight kills, 53 assists and 13 digs. She also added three assisted blocks for 9.5 points.
Whipple threw in the third double-double for the Wildcats with 10 kills and 13 digs to go along with two assists and an ace. She had 11 points for the match.
Hodge had 12 kills on 35 attempts and added two blocks for 13 points. Three of those kills came at a crucial point in the third set to give the Wildcats a lead.
In the middle, both Crouch and junior Zyonna Fellows had five kills on .500 hitting. Crouch added a team-high six blocks, including one solo, for 8.5 points. Fellows had two blocks, an ace and a dig. She contributed six points.
Gedikoglu played a key roll in grabbing the first set, getting four of her five kills in the opening period. She also had two aces and six digs. She ended her night with seven points.
Although they played Washington close in all three sets on Friday, the reality was that Arizona had been swept in all three matches this season. Just winning a set was important to this team’s development.
“So far, that was the best that we played,” Herman said. “And so I think there was a little bit of confidence and a little bit of just eager. We’re like, ‘Alright, we got this one like we can do it again.’
The Wildcats certainly came out in the second set looking like they believed they could do it again. They ran out to a 10-5 lead.
Then the wheels fell off.
Arizona couldn’t string points together. Washington went on a 15-3 run that put an end to any thoughts of a sweep, taking the set 25-17.
But the young Wildcats weren’t done. The third set was a tight affair. The largest lead either team had was two points until Arizona eventually built a 17-12 advantage.
“I think we were like, ‘Alright, let’s let that one go. Let’s get the next one’,” Herman said.
It looked like a case of deja vu when Washington not only overcame the five-point deficit but put together their own two-point lead.
Hodge took control, making sure Arizona got the “next one.” The freshman from Queen Creek, Ariz. had three kills down the stretch of the third set. One saved a set point. The next gave the Wildcats a set point of their own. The next closed things out 27-25 in her team’s favor to give them a 2-1 advantage in the match.
Another tight set in the fourth went the Huskies’ way 25-21. The 15-point set would decide it all.
Washington got out to the better start in the short set. From a 4-all tie, they built an 8-4 lead and forced the Wildcats to call their second timeout of the set.
It worked. Arizona went on a 6-2 run to tie the set at 10. Washington built a two-point lead again. At 14-12 in the Huskies’ favor, Whipple saved one match point. The Wildcats were unable to save the second one, though, and dropped the set 15-13.
Arizona will next take the court on Feb. 5 against Stanford, the defending national champions.
“See if we can push the Cardinal like we did this weekend,” Rubio said. “I’m looking forward to that. ... It’s always a lot of suffering when you lose, especially when it’s that close. But for this team there is some consolation of being close and being that competitive and what I told [our team] is that regardless if we would have won or lost that match, the trajectory of the team would have been the same. It would have been nice to get a win under our belt, but as I told them, when we’re ready to win, we’ll win. Overall I’m kind of pleased with where we’re at.”
MERLE!— Arizona Volleyball (@ArizonaVBall) January 31, 2021
3-0 run! Tie game! Timeout UW! pic.twitter.com/iNZhoizlvE