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Emily McGee steps up defensively for Tar Heels

A typical outside hitter is expected to exclusively play the ball at the net.

But the North Carolina volleyball team depends on outside hitter Emily McGee to fulfill a more complex role.

In addition to serving as one of UNC’s most dynamic offensive players, McGee has become one of the team’s strongest defenders, carrying North Carolina with her ability to couple kills with digs — offense with defense.

And on Friday and Saturday, UNC depended on her to do just that in its victories against No. 23 Miami and No. 11 Florida State.

“The last two nights were two of the best defensive nights that Emily’s had,” coach Joe Sagula said.

“The fact that she dug all those balls — some big digs for us, and then we went back and we were able to set Kayla Berringer and Chaniel (Nelson).”

“If Emily’s digging it, we want to go back to our right side and we win strong points. So that was huge.”

In addition to 10 kills and three service aces, McGee registered 17 digs in the 3-0 sweep of the Hurricanes, out-digging all other players of both teams — including both teams’ liberos, who only play defense.

In the 3-1 defeat of Florida State, McGee again led her team in digs with 16, and coupled it with 13 kills.

“This is a point where Emily’s also starting to play her best volleyball of the year,” Sagula said.

“As Emily goes, this team is going great as well. And it’s a great show of respect to her because she’s a great player. She’s been our best player for the last couple years and if she’s playing at her best, we’re a tough team.”

That versatility is certainly appreciated by her teammates, particularly the defensive specialists and libero, Ece Taner.

“Emily’s a great defensive player,” Taner said. “She’s all around awesome, doing everything. She is a great captain out there and it really takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders, absolutely.”

Sagula said McGee’s defensive contributions have allowed other players to step up offensively.

“(Friday) she got 23 (total attack) attempts. I was surprised she was even going to get that many. Last year in three sets, she probably would have had 40 attempts,” he said.

“We don’t have to set her as much because we have such great balance … Last year I think we were maybe two- or three-hitter oriented, now we’ve got six.”

And McGee handles her role with poise, understanding that a crucial dig is just as vital to the team’s success as a strong kill.

“Just knowing that you never know who we’re going to set is a great strength to this Carolina team,” she said.

“I might not be getting set as much, but the fact that I can frustrate the other team’s hitters by doing my part defensively … and just helping us get more kills with quality digs, is just equally as satisfying for me than getting a kill.”

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