The North Carolina volleyball team lost to the No. 10 Pittsburgh Panthers 3-1 in the Tar Heels’ first game of a two-game weekend road trip.
Sloppy play defined the first set of UNC’s first ACC match, as the two teams combined for 21 errors in the set. Four of the first six points in the set were scored on errors, resulting in an early 3-3 tie. Junior outside hitter Kaya Merkler and sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster helped the Tar Heels clean up their play after tying, as the two scored alternating kills on a 4-1 run to put UNC ahead 7-4.
The Tar Heels kept that lead well into the first set and even extended it to a four-point lead at one point, but Pittsburgh went on a 7-2 run midway through the set to take a 17-16 advantage. UNC tied the set several times, including late in the set when graduate outside hitter Charley Niego recorded a service ace to tie the score at 23 each, but was unable to reclaim the lead and eventually lost the set 23-25.
Errors continued to plague UNC in the second set, as the Panthers scored four of their first six points off Tar Heel errors and took an early 6-1 edge over UNC. Pittsburgh held strong to the lead their early lead and gradually stretched it until the Tar Heels found themselves trailing 10-19. Down by nine and trailing by a set, UNC started their comeback attempt by going on a 4-0 run to trim the Panthers’ lead to five, but the early hole they dug themselves in was too deep to climb. Pittsburgh finished the set with a 25-17 victory.
With their backs against the wall, UNC responded to adversity by winning the third set 25-20 and forcing a fourth set. Fueled by four Pittsburgh errors, UNC got out to an early 6-4 lead. The Panthers then committed two more errors, resulting in UNC extending its lead to 10-7. After Pittsburgh’s run of errors, Shaffmaster and Niego combined for six kills to help propel the Tar Heels to a 25-20 third-set victory.
After taking an early 2-0 fourth-set lead, the Tar Heels watched the Panthers score four unanswered points to take a 4-2 advantage. The Panthers slowly stretched their lead until they were up by nine points, 20-11, late in the set. After three hard-fought sets, UNC fell short of forcing a fifth set and lost the fourth set 25-16 in the fourth and 3-1 in the match.
Who stood out?
Shaffmaster was one of the few bright spots in a bleak ACC-opening performance for the Tar Heels. Shaffmaster recorded a game-high 14 kills while contributing 13 digs in UNC’s losing effort. Freshman libero Maddy May continued to impress in her first ACC competition after numerous impressive performances during the Tar Heels’ non-conference schedule by contributing 12 of the team’s 47 digs.
When was it decided?
The score was tied just one point before set point during the first set, so it appeared to be an evenly matched game going into the second set. But Pittsburgh quickly validated its national ranking early in the second set, pouncing on the Tar Heels by claiming a big lead and never letting go of it. UNC needed to mount a nine-point comeback in the second-set to avoid being forced to win three-straight sets to win the match. The Tar Heels, however, could neither mount the second-set comeback nor win three straight sets, resulting in a 3-1 loss to one of the ACC’s most formidable members.
Why does it matter?
UNC’s loss to Pittsburgh shows that despite winning eight of 11 games during the non-conference schedule, the Tar Heels still have some work to do if they want to compete with the ACC’s best teams.
For starters, UNC will likely need to clean up their errors if they plan on competing with the likes of Pittsburgh, Louisville and Miami, as 31 errors are too many for UNC to overcome against the ACC’s premier teams. In addition to cleaning up errors, the Tar Heels still desperately need to find a way to fill the voids of offensive production left by the departures of outside hitters Nia Robinson and Emily Zinger.
One bright spot, however, from the Tar Heels’ 3-1 loss was their defensive play. UNC recorded 13 blocks compared to the Panthers’ four blocks. If UNC can build its defensive efforts from this match, that’ll help compensate for some of their lost offensive production.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels’ next matchup is Sunday, September 25, at 1 p.m. on the road against the Virginia Cavaliers.
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