Following the North Carolina volleyball team’s recent rivalry wins over Duke and N.C. State, UNC head coach Joe Sagula warned against committing unforced errors when the ball unexpectedly came back over the net.
“What we have to do is just stay a little more calmer in those situations,” Sagula said on Oct. 24.
In UNC’s first set against Georgia Tech on Friday, the team took that advice to heart. The Tar Heels stayed close to the Yellow Jackets through their early lead in the first set and eventually secured a 26-24 opening-set victory.
In the second set, however, UNC was plagued by the unforced errors Sagula discussed, combined with attacking struggles.
The team’s morale plummeted, especially after a 6-0 Georgia Tech scoring run late in the set that was only broken up by a service error from the game’s kill leader, Yellow Jacket senior Julia Bergmann. No. 10 Georgia Tech continued this momentum, which culminated in a 3-1 win.
“I think we just got too complacent," senior middle hitter Skyy Howard said. "I think we expected them to roll over in the second set, and they didn’t. We worked really hard in the first set, and I think we could’ve just brought more energy and aggressiveness in terms of defense and attacking.”
Georgia Tech had been on a four-game winning streak entering the game, and UNC’s second-set complacency was crucial in turning the game around and eventually adding to the Yellow Jackets’ streak.
The struggles that the Tar Heels pulled through in the first set — long runs and an aggressive Georgia Tech offense led by Bergmann — were soon more apparent once the team's confidence was shaken.
When Georgia Tech took another early lead in the third set, the Tar Heels initially kept a closer pace. However, the Yellow Jackets eventually pulled ahead to win the third set, 25-16, and earn a 2-1 match lead.
Despite the Georgia Tech lead, the Tar Heels’ perseverance was clear. The team entered the fourth set with aggressiveness and took advantage of a few Georgia Tech errors to gain an early 3-2 lead. While the team was overtaken, UNC attempted to build off the Yellow Jackets' mistakes.
Even though the Tar Heels never took the lead again, the team kept itself in the game late in the fourth set. Senior outside hitter Parker Austin delivered a service ace directly after Georgia Tech’s last timeout to make the score 22-18, which seemed to bolster UNC's spirits. Sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster recorded the last three UNC kills of the game, but this still wasn't enough.
The team’s renewed aggressiveness was not enough to stop a 25-20 Georgia Tech win in the fourth set, which sealed the Yellow Jackets' overall victory.
“We gave them an inch and they took a mile,” Shaffmaster said.
However, Shaffmaster was proud of the way UNC didn't allow a Georgia Tech blowout victory, adding that UNC's performance proved that, with some work, it could be a testy contender for another top-25 team.
With the regular season quickly coming to a close, the Tar Heels only have a few more opportunities to prove their ability to the NCAA Tournament committee, where the team will look to make its second straight appearance.
"Just a little adjustment here and there, maybe on defense or blocking, and we would’ve been in it still,” Shaffmaster said.
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