Before the season started, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio was asked about the schedule he had set up for his team. In particular, what about the top-ranked Texas Longhorns?
“I think playing Texas for us, we’re probably a year away from playing them with this lineup,” he said at the time. “I think it would be maybe a more competitive match, but we’ll see.”
On Friday night—just a week after dropping a five-set match to unranked UTEP—the Wildcats showed that they were ready to compete with the best now. Arizona lost a close four-set match to the Longhorns (21-25, 25-16, 22-25, 22-25) in front of 2,791 fans in Gregory Gymnasium.
It was just the second set Texas had dropped this season and the first on its home court. Previously, the Longhorns had only lost a set to No. 10 Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Was it a sign that the young Wildcats are ahead of schedule?
“I think it could be a little bit up and down from match to match,” Rubio said, noting that it wasn’t difficult to get the team motivated for an opponent like Texas.
Carrying that motivation to every match is the next step.
Rubio does believe that emerging with a 2-1 record last weekend despite the physical and mental fatigue of playing 15 sets in 36 hours helped the Wildcats face their biggest competitive challenge of the season. It might have lifted them to the biggest win of the season if not for a few mistakes.
“They really connected with one another as a team,” he said. “It was a great effort. And I think that last week played into this week.”
Once again, the Wildcats were led by Jaelyn Hodge on offense. The sophomore had a match-high 16 kills on .275 hitting. She added two service aces and two blocks for a match-high 19.5 points. She also contributed eight digs.
Fellow sophomore Sofia Maldonado Diaz was second on the team with 11 kills on .231 hitting and two service aces for 13 points. She also had four digs.
The Wildcats were able to hold Big XII Player of the Year Logan Eggleston to a .085 hitting percentage, her lowest of the season. She had 13 kills, but it took her 47 swings to get them. She also committed nine errors.
“I think we did a nice job of staying in front of her and making her change her shots,” Rubio said. “The serving really was the tale of the game for both teams. I thought that if we could get them out of system off the serve receive, which is what we did, we would give ourselves a chance to score points.”
Both teams were able to side out consistently. The Longhorns had a 62.6 side-out percentage, while the Wildcats were able to side out 62.2 percent of the time.
The one area of the match that Texas was able to control was blocking. The Longhorns had 11.0 blocks to just 5.0 for the Wildcats. Arizona was able to keep several rallies going by deflecting the ball at the net, but they weren’t able to completely turn Texas back with the block.
In three of the four sets, each team kept its opponent within striking distance. Texas was able to build a lead of five points at 15-10 in the first, but Arizona won five of the next seven points to make it a two-point set. The Wildcats weren’t able to get any closer, though, and the Longhorns went up 1-0 on a service error from Puk Stubbe.
Arizona took its first lead of the match to open the second set, but couldn’t extend that advantage. After briefly falling behind, the Wildcats regained the lead at 13-12 and never looked back. The Longhorns scored just four more points in the set as Arizona leveled the match at a set apiece.
The third was much like the first with neither team pulling away until Texas built a 20-16 lead. Arizona trimmed that lead to one at 20-19, but couldn’t overcome the Longhorns’ advantage. A block by Brionne Butler and Skylar Fields gave Texas the 25-22 set win and a 2-1 lead in the match.
The fourth set would be the heartbreaker for Arizona. The final tie came at 21 points apiece. Texas inched towards the victory, gaining match point at 24-22. Then, the whistle blew. The official called a double contact on Arizona, ending the match. The televised replays didn’t present a clear case for the call, but an exciting match was ended on a ball-handling call.
“Sorry, don’t like it,” said Longhorn Network play-by-play announcer Paul Sunderland. “Don’t like it... I think that’s poor officiating.”
Rubio wasn’t as forceful in his statement.
“I felt that it wasn’t that egregious,” he said. “I thought it was a pretty clean set. Considering where the match was, he decided he was going to call that at that time. It wasn't that bad. I think Texas would have never complained.”
The Wildcats need to put that behind them because they will turn around and face Notre Dame on Saturday morning. Even the loss against Texas should help them in their quest for the postseason. A loss to the Irish would not be as forgiving.
“I think the biggest thing is just emotionally being in the match, which I don’t have any doubt that we will be,” Rubio said.