Disappointment struck the University of Colorado women's volleyball team Sunday afternoon as No. 20 Arizona staged a five-set comeback victory, wrecking senior day in Boulder with a 3-2 win (21-25, 8-25, 25-16, 25-20, 15-12).
With the loss, Colorado falls to 15-12 with a 7-9 Pac-12 record. Meanwhile, Arizona survives to improve to 19-9 with an even 8-8 record in conference play.
The Buffs were dominating in the first two sets of the match, taking the second set with ease as Arizona surrendered and pulled their starters during an 18-2 run that CU used to end the set.
But momentum shifted Arizona's way near the midpoint of the third set when the Wildcats put down a 15-5 run to take the set, including eight straight points. From there, Colorado failed to remain poised, and allowed Arizona to push through the fourth set and carry its momentum into the fifth.
The final set was a back-and-forth affair with a tie at every single point and no team earning more than a 1-point lead until Arizona took 2-point advantage at 11-9. Out of a timeout, Colorado appeared to bring it back to even before an Arizona challenge kept the score at 12-10. The Wildcats were then able to run away to a 15-12 victory, completing the improbable comeback.
The Wildcats only failed to sideout once in the fifth set, successfully halting back-to-back Colorado points 11 times in 12 attempts.
"I thought it was a well fought match, Arizona is obviously a very good team," said CU head coach Jesse Mahoney. "They will be a tournament team coming up in a couple weeks. I thought for two sets we played particularly well, the second set was a little bit of an aberration. I know we won big but they took out the bulk of their starters in the middle of that set, to rest them I suppose. We talked between sets two and three about not losing focus. Sometimes the worse thing to do is to win big and then have to turn around and win again, and unfortunately, I didn't think we responded in set three or four and didn't start playing hard again until set five, which was frustrating for us. We lost the serve/pass game from set three on and they were in system and scored a ton. That's one at the end of our season that we are going to want back."
Arizona's right-side hitter, Candice Denny, was a force CU simply couldn't handle, hitting .583 with a match-high 16 kills. She and Paige Whipple combined for 31 kills, while Pac-12 hitting leader Kendra Dahlke was held to just 13 kills.
"They hit into our block a bunch, we just didn't get blocks when that happened," said Mahoney. "We got tooled quite a bit. Normally we make those plays at a higher rate and we struggled to do it tonight. Arizona blocked very well, got a lot of soft touches and created a lot of transition opportunities when there weren't stuff blocks to be had. Definitely not our best night as far as that goes."
Colorado distributed the ball well behind freshman Jenna Ewert's 50 assists. A trio of Buffaloes tallied 14 kills — Naghede Abu, Justine Spann and Alexa Smith. Abu was one of the more dominant players in the match with a hitting percentage of .591. Her only error came on the first point of the match when she was blocked on a slide to the right-side.
"When we can ball control and get the ball to Naghede I think she's an elite player and attacker in this league," Mahoney said. "When we did ball handle well we got the ball to her and she was fantastic today. It comes down to us not ball handling well enough to get the ball to the middle as much as we needed to. We are going to need Naghede and everybody to play better through these last four matches."
Nearly all of the Buffs hit well, led by Lauren Dorrell's .833 hitting percentage with five kills on six swings. Joining Abu in the middle, Danielle Price had seven kills with a .333 hitting percentage and Ewert chipped in five kills while hitting .364.
The second set was a perfect example of the potential for CU, who posted a season-best .714 hitting percentage in the set. Colorado went on an 18-2 run to close out the set and doing so without committing a hitting error — the first-such occasion this season.
The second set was the most dominant the Buffs have had against a ranked opponent in the 25-point rally scoring era. Holding the Wildcats to a negative .107 hitting percentage was the best mark so far this season, while Arizona also posted the worst sideout percentage in a set for a CU opponent at just 23 percent.
The last time CU gave up a 2-0 lead was at UCLA in 2016. The last time the Buffs surrendered a 2-0 lead in Boulder was against No.17 Arizona State in 2014.
"Nothing changes, you can't look ahead and you can't really look back," said Mahoney on the remainder of the season. "Nothing is going to change, we will use what happened this weekend to get better. We struggled in our two-hitter rotations in the 5-1, we have to find ways to get better there. To have an opportunity to play in the postseason we probably need to win three of these next four, none of those are going to be handed to us. They are all on the road and three of those are tournament teams already. It is going to be a challenge for us."
The Buffaloes will need to recollect themselves if they are to push into the NCAA Tournament. Colorado will have four more road matches in the span of eight days to finish out the season, virtually all of which will be a must-win occasion. CU kicks off the important slate in Eugene on Friday against No.17-ranked Oregon. After that, Colorado has matches at Oregon State, and No. 21 UCLA before closing out the season at Utah on Nov. 23.