Arizona volleyball wins NCAA tournament opener

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — A balanced offense and a strong defensive effort led the Arizona volleyball team to a 3-0 win by set scores of 25-14, 25-23, 25-19 over New Mexico State in the first-round of the NCAA tournament on Friday.

The Wildcats (21-12) advance to play the winner of Saturday’s match between No. 9 San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. Friday night’s win was Arizona’s 27th in the NCAA tournament but first since advancing to the Elite Eight in 2005. The Wildcats are now a perfect 14-0 all-time against New Mexico State (22-11).

The Arizona defense was strong all night long, holding New Mexico State to just .102 hitting. Meanwhile, the Wildcats outblocked the Aggies 13-5. Arizona also finished with a significant 65-55 dig advantage.

Madi Kingdon had a solid all-around effort for Arizona, finishing with 11 kills, 14 digs and a career-high eight blocks. Taylor Arizobal was the only other player with double-figure kills, as she finished with 10 kills on a solid .333 hitting to go with three digs and two blocks. Jane Croson added nine kills and eight digs for the Cats.

Meanwhile, Penina Snuka finished with her 18th double-double of the season, recording 31 assists, 17 digs and two blocks, and Candace Nicholson provided a strong defensive effort from the back row with 12 digs.

The Wildcats also got strong contributions at the net from Rachel Rhoades and Halli Amaro. Rhoades recorded five kills on .444 hitting with three blocks, and Amaro had five kills to go with seven blocks.

Arizona got off to a strong start in the opening set, riding the arm of Croson, who served the Cats to the first three points of the match. However, New Mexico State quickly bounced back by reeling off the next five points to take the 5-3 advantage. Arizona answered right back with a 7-1 run to take a 10-6 lead, forcing the Aggies to burn an early timeout. From there it was all Arizona, as the Wildcats extended their lead and went on to take the set 25-14. Arizona’s defense was the story of the set, as it blocked New Mexico State six times while holding the Aggies to .000 hitting.

New Mexico State regrouped and got off to a quick 14-9 advantage in the second set, forcing the Wildcats to take a timeout. The Aggies remained in control until Arizona went on a 5-1 run to tie the score 21-21. After some back-and-forth play that brought the score to 23-23, a New Mexico State service error and a kill by Amaro clinched the comeback 25-23 victory in the set for the Wildcats. Once again, the Arizona defense came up big, posting five blocks in the set while holding NMSU to just .106 hitting.

It was all Arizona at the beginning of the third set, as the Cats jumped out to a 15-9 advantage. New Mexico State battled back to cut the lead to three at 21-18, but Arizona went on a 4-1 run to close the set 25-19. The Wildcats had their best offensive performance of the match in the set, as they hit a strong .361 with just three errors.

Gwen Murphy led New Mexico State with nine kills for the match, while Jordan Reifsteck finished with a match-high 20 digs to lead the Aggies’ defense.