The North Carolina volleyball team (3-2, 0-0 ACC) defeated Arizona (4-1, 0-0 Pac-12), 3-2, in a five-set thriller in Carmichael Arena on Saturday evening.
Backed by kills from junior middle blocker Kaya Merkler and senior outside hitter Parker Austin, the Tar Heels stormed out to a 5-1 lead, forcing Arizona head coach Dave Rubio to call a timeout.
The Wildcats passively settled for tips rather than kills throughout the first half of the set, allowing UNC to maintain a five-point lead until Arizona amped up the aggression.
The Wildcats’ kills from star hitters Jaelyn Hodge and Zyonna Fellows, coupled with service errors by North Carolina, allowed Arizona to pull the lead to one point. However, a 5-1 scoring run fueled by kills from graduate outside hitter Charley Niego and sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster closed out the opening set, 25-20.
The Tar Heels continued their red hot streak by starting the second set with a 4-0 lead, but just as quickly, the Wildcats answered with back-to-back kills from opposite Puk Stubbe. Midway through the set, Merkler recorded two consecutive kills to give UNC a 13-12 edge.
Arizona went on a 6-0 tear after another Stubbe kill, followed by outside hitter Sofia Maldonado Diaz’s pair of kills. After Shaffmaster slipped a hit by Stubbe to cut the Wildcat lead to 21-20, Arizona closed out the set on a 4-0 run. The Wildcats’ 24th point was a service ace by Maldonado Diaz on Shaffmaster.
Tied at one set apiece, the teams continued their back-and-forth bout throughout the third set, taking turns trading short runs of two to three points. A string of Wildcat errors had the match tied at 19-19, with the Tar Heels eventually squeaking by to take the set, 25-23.
For the first time in the match, Arizona seemed to be in control of a set. The Wildcats jumped out to a quick 10-4 lead in the fourth set and expanded it to 16-9. Senior middle hitter Skyy Howard made her first appearance on the front line, providing the Tar Heels with more length, but ultimately the Wildcats pulled away, 24-17, to force a final set.
Aces from Austin and Shaffmaster gave UNC momentum early in the final set, but almost every hard-earned point from the Tar Heels was followed by an error or Wildcat kill. With an 11-9 North Carolina lead, redshirt first-year Carson Overbeck committed a service error. On the next two points, first-year setter Anita Babic and Howard registered a kill each for the largest lead of the set. After a Shaffmaster service error shortened the lead to 14-12, Howard hit the dagger to the top left corner.
Who stood out?
Shaffmaster tallied a game-high 19 kills and 15 digs to propel the Tar Heels past the Wildcats.
When was it decided?
The match was tightly contested from start to finish, with neither team being unable to hold a scoring run for long. Ultimately, it went down to the final five points scored between either team, with Howard landing the game-winning shot.
Why does it matter?
A pair of home victories over two undefeated teams was exactly what the Tar Heels needed after a slow, 1-2 start to the season. Although UNC’s hitting percentage of .207 was significantly lower than Arizona’s .312, the Tar Heels were able to outserve the Wildcats for the win.
Moreover, this was the first match of the season that went to five sets — a solid, early-season litmus test of what this group of Tar Heels is capable of under pressure.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels will travel to Charlotte to face the 49ers on Tuesday at 6 p.m. They return to Carmichael Arena next weekend to face the Michigan State Spartans and the Michigan Wolverines in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
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