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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC volleyball falls 3-2 to Syracuse after struggling to close out match

UNC freshman Anita Babic (12) sets near the end of the third set of the volleyball game against Boston College on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022.

The North Carolina volleyball team (11-8, 3-5 ACC) lost 3-2 at home to Syracuse (9-9, 5-3 ACC) to finish their weekend of ACC play with a 1-1 record.  

What happened?

The Tar Heels jumped out to an early 5-1 lead in the first set by capitalizing on two Orange errors, as graduate outside hitter Charley Niego spearheaded the Tar Heels’ offensive attack with two early kills. 

UNC maintained its lead and extended it to as many as seven points before Syracuse called a timeout to address its first-set struggles. The Tar Heels remained dominant after the timeout break, going on a 5-3 run to put themselves ahead 21-12. UNC gave up a 5-2 run late, which put Syracuse five points away from their lead. Niego ended any hopes the Orange had of making a comeback, however, by scoring the set’s final kill to give UNC a 25-19 first-set victory. 

Neither team could pull away from the other for most of the second set, as the largest lead of the set until well past the halfway point was early on when the Tar Heels led 8-5. Syracuse’s early errors, complemented by junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler’s offensive production, fueled UNC for most of the set. But with the set tied at 17, the Tar Heels watched Syracuse’s lead grow to four, trailing the Orange 21-17 late and forcing head coach Joe Sagula to call a timeout. UNC made a comeback attempt it couldn’t finish and fell 25-21 in the second set. 

The third set was tightly contested early on, as the set was tied at 11 until UNC yielded four unanswered points to the Orange. Niego’s two kills after the Syracuse 4-0 run, as well as a service ace from first-year libero Maddy May and an error by the Orange, helped UNC trim the lead to just one and put the Tar Heels in position to win the set late. But after trimming Syracuse’s lead, UNC scored just one point compared to Syracuse’s eight, falling 25-17 in the third set.  

In the fourth set, sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster’s two kills and Syracuse’s three errors propelled UNC to an early 7-2 advantage over the Orange. After watching their five-point lead diminish as the Orange battled back into the set, Niego and first-year middle hitter Sadie Swift fueled a 5-1 run by each contributing two kills, which put the Tar Heels ahead 17-11. The Tar Heels hung on to their lead and won the fourth set 25-17, in large part thanks to the serving of senior outside hitter Parker Austin, who contributed straight three service aces late in the set. 

UNC fell to an early 6-2 deficit in the fifth set, urging Sagula to call a timeout to regroup the team. The Tar Heels continued to struggle after the timeout, and Syracuse extended its lead to 9-3, prompting yet another UNC timeout. The Tar Heels couldn’t mount their fifth-set comeback attempt and lost the set 15-7 and the match 3-2. 

Who stood out? 

Niego had one of the best games of her UNC career, contributing 13 kills, 16 digs, a block assist and a service ace in the Tar Heels’ losing effort against the Orange. 

First-year setter Anita Babic had another impressive performance during the early phases of her Tar Heel career, contributing 40 assists, 10 digs and three block assists against the Orange. 

When was it decided?

UNC seemed doomed for defeat after falling 2-1 early in the match, but the Tar Heels flexed their resilience and won a pivotal fourth set to force a decisive fifth set. UNC couldn’t carry over its momentum from the fourth set into the fifth and stumbled out of the gates in the fifth, falling to a 6-2 deficit early, then a 9-3 deficit later. The six-point deficit proved too big a hole to climb out off, and UNC lost the set 15-7 and the match 3-2. 

Why does it matter?

Other than hurting UNC’s record and their standing in the ACC, this loss to Syracuse highlights a recurring theme for the Tar Heels this season – struggling to finish matches late. Earlier in the season against Miami, the Tar Heels were in a position to force a fifth set trailing just 24-23 in the fourth, but couldn’t finish the job and lost to the Hurricanes. 

Similarly to this match against the Orange, UNC forced a fifth set while playing Florida State a week earlier, but the Tar Heels again stumbled out of the gates and lost the fifth set and match. 

UNC showed flashes of ability to compete against some of the ACC’s best teams against the Orange, but the Tar Hels need to work on consistency late in the game in order to turn that ability into reality. 

When do they play next?

The Tar Heels’ next matchup is on Friday at 7 p.m. on the road against the N.C. State Wolfpack.  

@dthsports |

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