TEMPE, ARIZ. — On Wednesday, Arizona head coach Dave Rubio had serve receive on his mind. How could he maximize the unique skills of his four pin hitters to improve that part of the game? On Thursday, the answer was clear: use all four of them. It was one of the keys to a five-set victory (23-25, 25-16, 25-17, 21-25, 15-9) over Arizona State.
During non-conference play, Rubio stuck with a rotation of Jaelyn Hodge, Sofia Maldonado Diaz, and Puk Stubbe most of the time. Dilara Gedikoglu got two starts in the 11 matches leading up to Pac-12 play, but she also failed to appear in two other matches. She felt she should be playing more.
“Dilara is a significant player for us,” Rubio said. “We had a conversation about that yesterday. She was a little frustrated from last weekend and didn’t play as much as she thought she should. And she certainly had a good argument to play more last week.”
Against ASU, Rubio substituted Gedikoglu regularly when Maldonado Diaz rotated to the back row. While Gedikoglu’s contribution didn’t appear on the stat sheet, she was critical in in the back row, which has concerned Rubio for most of the season.
“She gives us real stability back there,” Rubio said. “I know Kamaile (Hiapo) feels very confident with Dilara back there.”
It wasn’t the only change the Wildcats made to try to improve their passing and defense. Senior defensive specialist Malina Kalei Ua also played more than she has in the early part of the season.
“I think it’s going to be like that for a big part of the season,” Rubio said. “We’re just trying to train everybody up and get them to the point where they could function out there and then if they struggle a little bit, we’ve got an answer for that.”
The Wildcats have now played in five five-set matches this season. The victory over the Sun Devils gives them a 3-2 record in those matches. That previous experience during non-conference play likely helped Arizona pull out the win on a hostile court, but it didn’t make it any more comfortable for their coach.
“Obviously the end result was fine,” Rubio said. “But in terms of the ebb and flow of the match and the rollercoaster ride that you’re on during the match, it kind of eats away. And if I’m on the bench, I’m grinding my teeth and feel like I got this huge pit in the middle of my stomach.”
Those ebbs and flows showed in the play of Hodge. She had just one kill in the third set after getting three in both of the first two. She followed that up with three more in the fourth set, but she really raised her game when her team most needed it.
The sophomore had 15 kills, 17 digs, an assist, and two blocks on the evening. Five of those kills came in the final set when she scored a third of her team’s points.
“I got on Jaelyn a little bit to have more aggressiveness and not play it so safe,” Rubio said. “Let’s say she’s in a position to score, we will live with the circumstances. And then, in game five, she kind of came through and really got up out of the back row and made a big difference for us.”
Hodge tied the fifth set at seven-all with a kill. She followed that up with three more down the stretch, taking noticeably stronger swings.
Maldonado Diaz finished the match with 11 kills, eight digs, five total blocks, an assist, and an ace. Stubbe added 10 kills on .429 hitting, nine digs, an assist, an ace, and four total blocks.
As a team, the Wildcats blocked well. They ended the match with 16 total blocks against just eight by the Sun Devils. Merle Weidt led Arizona with eight blocks. Zyonna Fellows was just behind her with seven.
“I’m proud of the players,” Rubio said. “They really came together and really played well together. They played well when it counts the most.”