SAN DIEGO — In the corner of her eye, Arizona Wildcats volleyball player Rachel Rhoades saw her family dancing about 20 rows up in the Wildcats’ fan section at Jenny Craig Pavilion midway through Friday’s third set.
“I saw them Harlem Shaking on the side,” said Rhoades, a junior from San Diego. “It’s exciting seeing my whole family here, but I definitely had to mentally block them out the whole game.”
Instead, she focused on blocking New Mexico State. Which she did, three times.
The last one for the win — Arizona beat the Aggies 3-0 (25-14, 25-23, 25-19) to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
The Cats will face host San Diego tonight at 8. The Toreros beat UC Santa Barbara 3-0 (26-24, 25-18, 25-14) on Friday night.
“It’s nice to get that monkey off our back,” said UA coach Dave Rubio.
For the middle blocker Rhoades, her numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page — she had five kills and three blocks. Not quite Madi Kingdon-esque — the UA junior outside hitter had a near triple-double with 11 kills, 15 digs and eight blocks — but still significant, nonetheless. Especially Rhoades’ final block.
“It was there,” she said, “It’s kind of just a blur. You just go with your instincts, and it was a great win.”
Especially because Rhoades had been relegated to the bench and lost in the shuffle for most of the season. Before Friday’s win, she’d only played in 51 of a possible 112 Arizona sets.
Fitting, then, that maybe her best three sets of the season came just 6 miles down the interstate from where she went to high school.
“You’d have to check,” Rubio said, “but we’ve won every match that Rachel’s played.”
Two years ago, Rhoades, Kingdon and Taylor Arizobal all played, as freshman, in an NCAA first-round loss to Michigan State and went home disappointed.
“It was really painful,” Arizobal said.
Added Rhoades: “It was just heartbreaking.”
But Friday, in Rhoades’ timely return to the lineup, the trio certainly redeemed themselves.
The three combined for 26 kills, 10 blocks and 18 digs. And in the match-clinching third set, they factored in on half of the Wildcats’ points.
Early in that set, the Aggies were keeping it close at 11-9, then Rhoades came in with a kill, Kingdon with a block and two kills, and Arizobal with a kill.
It was 16-9, and Arizona was on its way to its first NCAA tournament advancement since the Wildcats went to the Elite Eight in 2005.
“They’ve been by my side since freshman year,” Kingdon said of Arizobal and Rhoades, “so I’m glad we could be here to make it past the first round.”
Added Arizobal: “It was kind of a curse, but we finally broke it.”
New Mexico State gave the Wildcats a run in the second set, though.
After a dominant 25-14 first-set win by Arizona, the Aggies jumped out to a 9-6 lead, and extended it to 14-10. Rubio called a timeout, and the Wildcats took off. They outscored the Aggies 15-9 the rest of the way to take the second game.
“I thought New Mexico State played well,” Rubio said, “they really competed, they played great defense, really really pushed. I think we could be better offensively.
“I think we need to step it up a notch going forward, but overall the girls were really dialed in tonight.”
Arizona’s Penina Snuka, a freshman, and Halli Amaro, a sophomore, were dialed in. Snuka had 31 assists and 17 digs; Amaro added five kills and a game-high seven blocks.
Kingdon and Arizobal were dialed in, too. As was Rhoades, even if she was a little distracted by her dancing friends and family.
“It’s exciting seeing my whole family here,” Rhoades said, “but definitely a little harder to focus. I felt more driven to play well and play for them, but, again, I had to block them out the whole game.
“But we got the first win. Now it’s just a sprint to the finish line.”