'Spike Night' women's volleyball preview: No. 25 USC at Arizona

John McGillen / Arizona Athletics

Who: No. 25 USC at Arizona

When: Wednesday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. PT/8 p.m. MT on Pac-12 Networks, with Anne Marie Anderson and Holly McPeak on the call.

The final month of the regular season gets underway in the Pac-12 with two teams jockeying for position in the middle of the Pac-12 ladder.

Since We Last Spoke: No. 25 USC (15-8 Overall, 7-5 Pac-12)

Heading into a four-match homestand after sweeping the Oregon schools on the road, a 5-3 USC team had a chance to make its move up the conference standings. Instead, the Trojans could do no better than split a pair of home weekends against the Bay Area and Mountain schools. There’s no shame in losing to Stanford or Utah (they played two deuce sets against the Utes, including taking a 32-30 marathon of a first set before dropping the next three), both top-25 teams, but USC is going to have to start winning those matches if it wants to stay in the Pac-12 hunt.

Perhaps luckily for USC, it is about to begin a four-match road trip and plays six of its final eight matches away from the Galen Center. The Trojans have had their struggles at home, posting just an 8-8 record in Galen, but are a perfect 7-0 away from the friendly confines and are 3-0 against ranked teams on the road. On this four-match swing, the Trojans have two matches they should absolutely win, but the one in Tucson is not one of those considered to be “in the bag,” as Arizona swept the Wildcats in the Galen Center last month.

The Trojans are just two back of first-place Washington and UCLA but is in a three-way tie for fifth, so they have plenty of teams they need to navigate past to get to the top of the heap. If head coach Mick Haley wants back-to-back conference championships, the Trojans probably need to win out, and even that might not be enough.

The Story So Far: Arizona (14-10 Overall, 6-6 Pac-12)

Just when it looks like they have it going in the right direction, the Wildcats seem to stub their toe. A few weeks ago, Arizona looked unstoppable, sweeping the ranked LA schools on the road for the first time in program history and backing that up by winning at No. 12 Stanford in four sets to get to 5-2 in league play. All the Wildcats needed to do was beat winless-in-conference Cal in Berkeley to wrap up a 4-0 road swing in California.

But Arizona lost that match in five sets, blowing a 2-1 set lead to the Golden Bears in the process. Arizona got a promising road win at No. 20 Oregon after dropping both home matches to the Washington schools, but followed that up by losing at tied-for-last Oregon State, giving the Beavers just their second conference win of the season.

Overall, Arizona is still in good shape for the NCAA tournament with an RPI ranking of 37 despite losing four of its last five, but the Wildcats are going to need to pile up some more victories in order to feel safe for December. Five of their next seven matches are at home, but only one of those matches is against an unranked team, and that’s a team that Arizona has already lost to in Cal. Simply put, the Wildcats are gonna have to earn it.

Three Players to Watch: USC

  • #16 Khalia Lanier (6’2" outside hitter, freshman) The No. 1 recruit in her class continues to live up the billing, as she still leads the Trojans with 4.02 kills per set, good for fourth in the Pac-12. She’s coming off a 13-kill outing in the three-setter over Colorado and has amassed double-digit kills in six straight matches.
  • #10 Taylor Whittingham (5’8" libero, senior) Whittingham continues to do what she does best, and that’s keep balls off the floor. Her 4.96 digs per set are third in the conference and 39th in the nation, and her 1,586 career digs are fourth all-time at USC. She had a match-high 15 digs in the win over the Buffs.
  • #11 Elise Ruddins (6’3" middle blocker, senior) The team’s leading stuffer with 92 blocks and 1.12 blocks per set, Ruddins leads the Pac-12 with a .431 hitting percentage.

Three Players to Watch: Arizona

  • #20 Penina Snuka (5’6" setter, senior) The turning-into-a-throwback, six-rotation setter is not only great at her main duty (10.47 assists per set, second in the Pac-12, and considered one of the 10 best setters in the country by FloVolleyball), but she’s also great at keeping rallies going defensively. She’ll fly all over the court to keep balls off the floor, and her 3.06 digs per set are a testament to that.
  • #8 Kendra Dahlke (6’0" outside hitter, sophomore) As a freshman in 2015, Dahlke was a role player. This year, she has become the team’s leading attacking option and tops the squad with 4.10 kills per set, good for second in the Pac-12. She’s had double-digit kills in all but two matches in which she has played, and she had nine in both of those. Not bad for someone who missed time with a concussion this year.
  • #10 Kalei Mau (6’1" outside hitter, senior) The former Minnesota Golden Gopher led the Wildcats last year with 4.33 kills per set en route to 2015 first-team All-Pac-12 honors. While she’s no longer the top option offensively, she’s still averaging a healthy 3.77 kills per set (fifth in the Pac-12) and put up 23 kills in two of her last three matches. Probably one reason why Mau isn’t leading the team in kills is because she’s had to miss time with a dislocated shoulder and a slipped disc, so it’s pretty remarkable that she’s been able to put up the kind of numbers she has.

Three Notes to Know

1. Second-half improvements under Mick Haley Good note from USC women’s volleyball SID Jeremy Wu: In the first 15 years of Mick Haley’s tenure, the Trojans have had a second-half conference record that was either equal to or better than their first-half conference record 12 times. The Trojans were 6-4 at the turn this year, and 1-1 in the second half of league play so far. Is this the week USC starts to make a late-season run to the top?

2. The first time these teams met USC was rolling heading into its Oct. 7 Galen meeting with Arizona, but the Wildcats swept the Trojans 25-20, 25-22, 25-20 to snap USC’s three-match win streak. Kendra Dahlke paved the way for the 'Cats with a double-double (17 kills, 11 digs), while setter Penina Snuka nearly posted a double-double of her own with 40 assists and nine digs (not to mention four blocks). Niki Withers had 13 kills to lead USC, which was out-blocked 9-2 and out-hit .356-.255 by the visiting Wildcats.

3. These teams have something in common they probably aren’t too proud of They’re both well-positioned for an NCAA Tournament berth now, but Arizona and USC both started the season 0-3, the only teams in the Pac-12 to get off to that bad of a start. In fact, the Trojans and Wildcats are two of just five Power Five schools to start 0-3, the other three being Arkansas, Auburn and Syracuse.

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