Wildcats prepare for Western Kentucky in opening round of NCAA Tournament
Arizona middle blocker Halli Amaro (3) stands with teammates ready for the next set in McKale Center on Sunday, Sept. 27. Amaro led the Wildcats in kill percentage (.318) and blocks per set (.98) while finishing fourth in points (280.5).
Arizona volleyball received the news Sunday evening that it will be competing in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year and the 27th time in school history. The Wildcats will take on No. 20 Western Kentucky in the first round on Friday at 5 p.m. in Provo, Utah.
Arizona head coach Dave Rubio will be making his 18th trip to the big dance in his 24 seasons at the Wildcats’ helm.
“We’re certainly excited to be invited back to the NCAA Tournament,” Rubio said. “We feel like getting a chance to go to Utah and staying in our own time zone is a benefit for us.”
The Wildcats earned a bid after defeating rival ASU 3-1 in their last regular season match of the season Friday. Halli Amaro, senior middle blocker for the Wildcats, expressed the importance of that win to get into the tournament and what it meant to get a win in her final home game as a Wildcat.
“The night, overall, was just perfect for me,” Amaro said. “I had my family there, I had some friends come and surprise me from back home. … Ultimately, I think that win did help us get into the tournament, so I think getting that win was an emotional one for me just because … getting into the tournament relied a lot on what happened in that game.”
Western Kentucky, victor of the Conference USA, will be no easy match for Arizona. The Hilltoppers dominated their conference with a 15-1 record.
“When you play against a ball club that’s used to winning as much as those guys have, they’re not going to be intimidated by the moment by any means,” Rubio said. “They’re certainly not going to be intimidated by us.”
Rubio will use this week to prepare for a different style of play than his team is accustomed to. Normally, the Wildcats play big, physical teams in the Pac-12 Conference; Western Kentucky is the opposite of that.
“We’re used to seeing big, giants kids,” Rubio said. “These guys, they’re smaller, quicker, faster; … Their setter puts a lot of pressure because when she’s front row, she has a very offensive mind in terms of her own attacking ability and setting ability. We’ll certainly have to do some things and make some adjustments that we haven’t had to make in the past.”
Rubio said Arizona will not be looking past Western Kentucky, though a Wildcat win would put them up against the winner of Ohio and 13 seed BYU. Facing BYU would present a rematch of last year’s second round match, where Arizona fell in four sets to the Cougars.
BYU ended up going all the way to the finals, something setter Penina Snuka described as “catching lighting in a bottle.”
Snuka said the team that gets hot at the right time will have the best chance to go as far as BYU did last year, and is confident her team is heating up at the right time.
Outside hitter Kalei Mau—who was third in the Pac-12 in kills—and libero and defensive specialist McKenna Painton, may be out against Western Kentucky.
Both players were out against ASU and Rubio said it will be day to day for each of them leading up to the first round. Rubio is hopeful they will be able to play by Friday, but said back ups Kendra Dahlke and Elizabeth Inch will step up as they did against ASU.
“I think we got our hands full with Western Kentucky,” Rubio said. “I’m not looking past them because I know they’re going to give us everything we can handle that night.”
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