After Arizona volleyball lost to Oregon in straight sets last week, head coach Dave Rubio talked about how the Wildcats just couldn’t win the points at crucial times in the match. That problem re-emerged against USC as the Women of Troy defeated the Wildcats in four sets (25-20, 22-25, 25-20, 25-20). It was the first set that Arizona had taken against a team in the top half of the league’s standings this season.
While Arizona was able to hang with USC for most of the match, the Wildcats just couldn’t quite get over the hump or put together a run when they had a lead. In the first set, they led by as many as four points until USC tied it at 16. While the Women of Troy never really ran away with it, they never trailed again.
Arizona regrouped in the second set. After hitting -.071 in the first set—getting just seven kills against nine hitting errors—they hit .394 in the second set. It was the only set in which they hit over .139 as a team.
There were eight lead changes and 14 ties in set two. Each time USC went up by two, the Wildcats were able to get their feet back under them and retake the lead. USC’s last lead came at 16-15, and it was a whole new ballgame with the two teams tied at a set apiece.
Things returned to the familiar pattern in set three. Arizona stayed very close to USC with the final tie coming at 17-17. The Women of Troy went on an 8-3 run to close out the set. Arizona’s hitting percentage plummeted again in the third set, finishing at .070.
The Wildcats fell behind by as many as three early in the fourth set, but they fought back to tie it at 10. Once again, the final tie came with each team at 17 points. Another 8-3 run by the visitors closed out the match.
“There’s a couple of things that stand out,” Rubio said. “The margin for error is so small for us and we just couldn’t score enough in transition. And those guys obviously could score in transition...Some of it is the setting. Setting wasn’t good enough so that we were taking good enough type of approaches to score...They had enough heat on the left, where those guys were doing a much better job of putting the ball in positions. Those guys are pretty athletic on the left.”
Rubio felt that in addition to the team’s inability to win the important points, they also struggled to get the ball to their middle blockers.
“Our serve receive broke down and...when we can’t hit the middle, it becomes an issue for us,” Rubio said. “Now our pin players have to carry us when they can’t set the middle and then set the middle hardly at all. I mean, all [USC] did was set the left the whole time, and they can get away with that. For us, we got to pass the ball much better so we can set the middle. When we do that, then it opens everything up on the left. There’s more margin for error [for USC] when you got number five [Skylar Fields] over there doing her thing and number two [Jordan Wilson].”
Rubio has said several times in the past that they are trying to set the middles about 30 percent of the time. Against USC, the two middle blockers had just 20 percent of the swings with 28 of the team’s 140 attempts.
Despite those numbers, setter Emery Herman disagreed that setting the middles was a deciding factor in the match.
“There’s always room for improvement, but I didn’t feel that that was a big factor in why we lost,” Herman said.
Instead, Herman identified the other problem her coach suggested: not winning points at crucial times.
“I think we made errors at the wrong times,” Herman said. “I think if our errors were at the beginning of the games, things would have been different.”
The effectiveness of the middles varied. While sophomore Alayna Johnson had six kills on 12 swings without an error, hitting .500 for the match, fifth-year senior Zyonna Fellows had difficulty. Fellows had five kills on 16 swings, but she also had six hitting errors.
“I probably should have subbed her out,” Rubio said.
Herman was pleased with what she saw from the Wildcats’ side of the net, noting that they had “a lot of passion, a lot of fire today.”
“I think we played hard,” she said. “We played the best conference game we’ve had yet as a team.”
Despite the Wildcats coming out on the losing end, Herman said that it was a better team effort than the win at Oregon State last weekend.
“I think if we played like we played today, we would have murdered Oregon State,” Herman said.
USC leaned heavily on outside hitter Fields. The Texas transfer hit .311 and had a double-double with 20 kills and 13 digs. The Women of Troy also got double-digit kills from outside hitter Wilson (13 kills) and opposite Emilia Weske (12 kills). Weske also hit over .300, ending the match at .308.
Arizona was led in kills by Jaelyn Hodge with 14 and Sofia Maldonado Diaz with 12. While Hodge was able to boost her hitting percentage to .220 by the end of the match, Maldonado Diaz was one of several Wildcats who struggled with efficiency. She ended with a .053 hitting percentage.
The Wildcats get another chance to win their second Pac-12 match when they host UCLA on Sunday. The Bruins defeated Arizona State in straight sets on Friday night to get their first conference win and put an end to a five-match losing streak. They are now tied with Arizona with a 1-4 record in league play.