On Wednesday, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio talked about the uneven playing field created by the return of super seniors this season. On Friday, he had an even younger team than usual on the court against UCLA, but he didn’t want that to be used as an excuse for the Bruins’ 3-0 (25-17, 28-26, 25-15) victory.
“I was disappointed today,” Rubio said. “More than disappointed. I was discouraged today, because UCLA certainly wasn’t at the top of their game. UCLA was missing two starters, as well, and we didn’t take advantage of that.”
Like the Bruins, the Wildcats were without two starters. Senior middle blocker Zyonna Fellows has been in concussion protocol since Thursday. Puk Stubbe. a 21-year-old freshman who has a great deal of overseas experience, has been sick all week. The loss of the pair took a great deal of experience off the court for Arizona.
“I guess you could check the box that says it’s because we’re young and inexperienced,” Rubio said. “There’s a point where you just can’t use that excuse anymore. Now, I’m kind of at that point.”
In their place, freshman Alayna Johnson and junior Dilara Gedikoglu started. While Gedikoglu has started several matches for the Wildcats over the past two seasons, it was the first of Johnson’s career.
“I thought AJ played well,” Rubio said. “She blocked some balls. She didn’t seem lost out there. I thought she handled the pressure well. I think all those things were good....The bright spot for me was Alayna and certainly what she did and moving the needle forward.”
With Gedikoglu in the starting rotation, Jaelyn Hodge slid to the right side to take over for Stubbe. Hodge seemed to find her way once again after a few weeks of struggling. She had not hit over .225 since Pac-12 play began at ASU on Sept. 23 and had hit under .100 in all four October matches.
On Friday, Hodge led the Wildcats with 16 kills on .265 hitting. Going into the final set, she was hitting well over .300 for the match. She added two total blocks for a team-high 17 points.
“We had to put Jaelyn back on the right, and I thought that was good for Jaelyn,” Rubio said. “I thought it was good to have her over there. I thought offensively it would allow her to become a little bit more aggressive, which she was. In general, that was good.”
Sofia Maldonado Diaz was the other Wildcat to get double-digit kills. She ended the night one dig shy of a double-double with 11 kills and nine digs. She added an ace and two total blocks for 13 points.
As a team, the Wildcats had 38 kills to 37 by the Bruins. What hurt them was the serve. Arizona had 13 service errors including six in the second set. UCLA won that set 28-26.
Rubio was concerned that his team didn’t rise to the occasion in what he felt was a winnable match against a depleted UCLA team. A win would have boosted the Wildcats’ postseason profile regardless of who was on the court for the Bruins.
What UCLA had that Arizona did not was Mac May. May had 18 kills on .424 hitting. She accounted for 20 points for the Bruins.
“She was carrying them, really the whole time,” he said. “We don’t have somebody like that. Somebody in our team has to eventually step up and do it. And if not, then we’re just going to languish the way we have been and lose to these teams...Regardless of the talent, until they stop deferring to these teams, it’s not gonna matter. And I think one of the disappointing things for me is that there’s not a...strong competitive spirit as a group. There’s individual players that I think are like that. Kamaile (Hiapo) is certainly like that. But as a group, it’s not like they play with a chip on the shoulder. It’s not like they’re playing with this tremendous amount of competitive fire. If they did, we would have won at least one set tonight.”
On Sunday, Arizona has a match against USC that should be winnable, but the Wildcats will probably enter that match without Fellows and Stubbe. The question for them is who can rise to the occasion.