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Arizona volleyball is its own worst enemy in 5-set loss to USC

Kamaile Hiapo digs the ball against USC in a match on March 26, 2021 in McKale Center.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

USC had made life tough for several of the teams in the top half of the Pac-12 standings, but getting wins was difficult. They broke through against their rivals, beating No. 17 UCLA last Sunday. That worried Arizona head coach Dave Rubio.

It turned out that USC wasn’t Arizona’s biggest obstacle. The Wildcats were their own worst enemy as they fell to the Women of Troy 3-2 (28-30, 25-22, 25-15, 19-25, 15-13) in an error-filled match.

Arizona ended the match with 70 kills to just 52 by USC. They had almost as many blocks—nine for UA and ten for USC—and more digs (69 to 64). USC had just one more ace (six to five). But it’s difficult to win when you have 38 attack errors, nine service errors, and two ball-handling errors

Arizona had several good showings by individual players, especially the middle blockers.

Zyonna Fellows had 14 kills on .346 hitting. She also had a dig and three total blocks, and her 15.5 points were second on the team. Her fellow middle Merle Weidt had 9 kills on .438 hitting, a dig, and six total blocks.

Sofia Maldonado Diaz led the team with 17 kills. She added an assist, two aces, two digs, and a block. Her 19.5 points led the team.

Senior Paige Whipple came up big, especially early in the match. She had 16 kills and 9 digs.

The problem for all of the outsides was efficiency. The highest hitting percentage of the group was .154 by Maldonado Diaz. As a group, they hit just .108.

Rubio tried to mix things up in the middle sets. In one of the few instances this seasons, he inserted senior setter Akia Warrior into the match for Emery Herman. Redshirt freshman Simone Overbeck saw the first action of her career, as well.

“That’s a good assessment,” Rubio replied when asked if he was just trying to find something that worked.

The first set was tight, but USC led until Arizona fought back to tie it at 15-all. The Women of Troy built a three-point lead again, then got to set point at 24-22.

Arizona wasn’t ready to let go. The Wildcats took three straight points to get their own set point. Back and forth. Seven set points—four for USC and three for Arizona—ended with a kill by Whipple to give the Wildcats a 1-0 lead.

It looked like that lit a fire under Arizona.

They stayed in front by two or three points in the early part of the second set, then built that lead to six at 21-15. A two-set to zero lead was within reach.

Then, the bottom dropped out from under them.

The Wildcats only scored one more point in the set as USC closed it out 25-22. The Women of Troy had only 10 kills to Arizona’s 16 in the set, but the Wildcats had eight attacking errors and a service error.

“It’s been a disturbing trend for us,” Rubio said. “We are just moving the scoreboard the wrong way for the opposing team. A great example of that was set two. They only had 10 kills, and they won the set 25-22. They only score 10 points which means that we didn’t receive the ball very well today, and then our outside hitters in general just made too many attacking errors.”

Set three was a disaster for Arizona. The Wildcats had four attacking errors, two ball-handling errors, and three service errors.

USC did not play well, either. Like Arizona, they had just nine kills.They hit .133 as a team in the set. It was still enough to win 25-15 because of the Wildcats’ implosion.

“We got blocked too often” Rubio said.

The Wildcats came back in the fourth set by hitting better. They hit .225 as a team, the highest percentage of the night. Their six hitting errors were the fewest of the four 25-point sets.

They had given themselves a chance. Once again, the teams had identical kill numbers in the fifth set, but Southern Cal was more efficient. USC hit .286, which was their second-highest percentage of the night. UA dropped to .125, their second-lowest percentage of the night.

“We won the first set in a close one and were up in the second set 21-16, and then get stuck in a rotation we can’t side out of,” Rubio said. “And we end up losing almost six or seven points in that rotation, and that really changed the complexion of the game. (Set) three wasn’t close. In game five we find a way back. We haven’t been in those situations very often, so I like the response that we had when we were down two to one. And I like how we competed in game five, but just the outside hitters really didn’t play very well.”

They get another chance at the same USC team on Sunday, but they have some things to do if they want the result to be different.

“The fact that we lost like that, I think we had plenty of opportunities to score,” sophomore libero Kamaile Hiapo said. “Definitely props to Emery Herman. She’s a freshman setter. She’s doing amazing running the team. It’s hard. It’s hard doing that right now. I don’t think it was emotional. I definitely think it was all statistical. I don’t know what happened tonight. It was definitely an off-hitting night for us, but we’ll come back on Sunday. I think we’ll fix that tomorrow.”