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Arizona volleyball can’t ride the momentum from first Pac-12 win to victory over USC

The Arizona bench celebrates winning the first set against USC volleyball on Oct. 8, 2023 at McKale Center.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona volleyball got its first Pac-12 win on Friday evening against UCLA. It was a huge relief for the players and coaches. It also appeared to be a huge confidence boost when the Wildcats (6-11, 1-5) took the floor against USC (11-5, 5-1) on Sunday afternoon. That boost couldn’t carry them through five sets as the Trojans won 3-2 (24-26, 25-12, 25-20, 20-25, 15-9) at McKale Center.

“I was very frustrated,” said Arizona head coach Rita Stubbs. “I spent too much time talking people off the ledge and trying to make them believe. We’re beyond that. And if you’re spending time doing that, you’re taking away from what’s going on. One time, I’m out there trying to make somebody feel good and missed the total play and couldn’t do what I needed to do as a coach. So, it’s like, there’s not enough self-accountability.”

Heading into the weekend, one big question was whether sophomore outside hitter Jordan Wilson would press against her former team. Wilson transferred to Arizona after making the 2022 Pac-12 All-Freshman team for the Trojans.

Although Wilson left on good terms with USC and keeps in touch with her former teammates, on Tuesday Stubbs said that it’s natural for a player to want to prove something when she faces a team she used to play for.

“Honestly, I really wanted to beat them,” Wilson said. “But that goes for every team.”

Wilson did everything in her power to try to get that win for her new team. She had a team-high 20 kills and two digs. She hit .250 and contributed 20 points.

All three of Arizona’s pins had double-digit kills. Sofia Maldonado Diaz had a double-double with 16 kills and 10 digs. It was her seventh of the season and the third in her last five matches. She added two aces and two total blocks (one solo) for 19.5 points.

As is often the case for the Wildcats, it took one of the pins a while to get going. In this case, it was Jaelyn Hodge. Just as Arizona targeted Cheridyn Leverette of UCLA on Friday, USC targeted Hodge regularly on serve.

Hodge received the serve 30 times, one fewer than libero Joy Galles. It’s something that has been common this season—picking one of the pins and “making her life miserable,” in Stubbs’ words. On Sunday, Hodge was chosen.

It eventually came around for the senior outside hitter. She ended the day with 12 kills on .265 hitting. She added an ace and three total blocks for 14.5 points.

Middle blocker Nicole Briggs was on the way to her second straight strong match, especially on offense. Against UCLA, she had five kills on .571 hitting and five total blocks. Through three sets against USC, she had the same five kills on .500 hitting and one total block. That’s where her day ended, and it had little to do with her play.

With the score at 13-13 in the third, Briggs made an error on serve receive. Because Stubbs feels that the team often spirals into a series of mistakes if the coaches don’t address the first one as soon as they can, she addressed the error with Briggs. She did not like the response she got.

“When an error happens, what is her response to the feedback?” Stubbs explained. “Because what we’re trying to avoid as much as possible—and this goes for any one error—how they respond to that one error would determine what the next thing is. So, if the response is negative...we can’t go down that rabbit hole. We’ve been in that hole before.”

Freshman Journey Tucker came in for Briggs and played for the rest of the match. Stubbs has said that if she considered this year a complete rebuild, Tucker would be playing much more so she can develop for the future. While she doesn’t have high-level experience, she has the physical assets to develop into a good piece for Arizona down the road as long as she can stay healthy.

“You know what you’re going to get when you have her out there,” Stubbs said.

USC was led by Skylar Fields with a match-high 23 kills and 24.5 points. She had a hitting percentage of .413, one ace, one block, and nine digs.

Arizona next takes the court against No. 5 Oregon (15-2, 5-1) in Eugene on Friday, Oct. 13. That will be followed by a match at Oregon State (5-11, 0-6) on Sunday, Oct. 15.