Late scoring runs weren’t enough for the North Carolina volleyball team on Sunday, as it fell to a robust Miami defense, 3-1, in the final home game of the season.
“(Miami) blocked really well today,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “We didn’t have as much balance in our offense, so we were a lot more predictable in terms of where the ball was going. If we could have kept (their number of blocks) to 10, I think it would’ve been different.”
Miami’s 2.67 blocks per set rank them second in the ACC behind Louisville. The Hurricanes' defensive prowess was on full display, totaling 19 blocks to North Carolina’s seven.
UNC's early lead propelled the team to a victory in the first set. But for each of the subsequent sets, the Tar Heels never seemed to ignite until Miami was close to winning the set. They managed to take the second and third sets to a 24-24 tie, but the Hurricanes ultimately came out on top in both instances.
“I’m so proud of how we fought,” Sagula said. “But I thought the problem was we’d give up a four- to five-point run in the middle of a set and dig ourselves from a hole and have to come back from that."
Although the Tar Heels' thrilling comebacks weren’t enough for them to emerge victorious, the scoring runs highlighted the importance of staying aggressive when attacking. First-year outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster described her thought process on choosing an aggressive play style against the versatile Hurricane team.
“If you swing easy, (Miami) is gonna pass it and run it back down our throats,” Shaffmaster said. “If you swing hard, you might be able to break through their block and get a kill, so I hit it as hard as I possibly could.”
Sophomore outside hitter Kaya Merkler shared similar thoughts, also explaining why she played more aggressively on the brink of losing a set.
“I’d rather go out swinging than tipping and being really passive,” Merkler said.
For a time, it seemed to work. Down 23-19 in the second set, UNC scored four consecutive points, three of which were kills from graduate outside hitter Nia Robinson.
In set three, the Tar Heels were down 22-19, but it was Robinson again who had three clutch kills to even the score.
And in the last set, North Carolina was down 22-14, but kills from Merkler and Shaffmaster kept the Tar Heels’ hopes alive.
It’s no coincidence that Robinson, Shaffmaster and Merkler led the comebacks. As the team’s top-three hitters, they have combined for almost 70 percent of the team’s kills this season. But the runs also saw kills from senior middle hitter Amanda Phegley and junior middle blocker Skyy Howard, highlighting the all-around effort.
With the NCAA Tournament looming, North Carolina will need to figure out how to play each set all the way through instead of dialing it up after it’s too late. Sunday’s loss served as a reminder of the Tar Heels' inability to compete starting from the first serve, and more importantly, a reminder of their struggles against stronger teams.
“(Miami) is just too good of a team right now to give that many points to,” Sagula said. “They’re a smart team, well coached, and they played well today.”
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