Pink rally towels waved through the air as the North Carolina volleyball team entered its fifth set against Syracuse on Sunday afternoon, filling Carmichael Arena with vibrant energy.
When sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster ran onto the court, her newly-dyed pink hair draped her Carolina blue uniform. The momentum was on the Tar Heels' side as they had just won the fourth set 25-17, keeping the game alive after dropping the previous two sets.
However, halfway through the set, the pink rally towels were nowhere to be seen and Shaffmaster’s hair was now overshadowed by the sea of orange Syracuse uniforms on the other side of the court.
After UNC tied the set at 2-2, the Orange went on an 8-1 run before securing the final five points, winning the set 15-7 and the match 3-2.
“We sometimes mentally get down on ourselves and it takes too much energy to overcome that in the fifth set,” head coach Joe Sagula said. “Once we got down 4-2, it felt like we had to go uphill but it wasn’t that bad. I feel like we made things worse than they were.”
The inability to win conference games at home has become a growing theme for the Tar Heels.
First, it was the Sept. 30 loss to Miami, and that same weekend, a five-set loss to Florida State in which North Carolina similarly had the momentum going into the final set.
“We’re trying to figure out why a couple of things have happened like why it’s gotten to be this close,” Sagula said. “We make one or two mistakes, and those mistakes turn into three or four mistakes. We’ve got to learn and grow as a team to not let that happen.”
UNC came into the first set and asserted its dominance straight away, taking the first three points. The Tar Heels wouldn’t give up that early lead, going on three different runs of three-plus points to get a lead of as much as nine points, eventually winning the set 25-19.
It looked as if North Carolina would be able to grab a hold of the game and send Syracuse home with its fourth-straight loss.
It wouldn’t be that easy, though.
After gaining an 8-5 lead in the second set, the Tar Heels fell victim to the Syracuse offense. In combination with several attack errors from UNC, outside hitters Polina Shemanova and Viktoriia Lokhmanchuk combined for seven kills to help lead the Orange to a 25-21 win.
In the third set, North Carolina had rallied back from being down four points and was only down 18-17, but the Orange proceeded to score seven straight points to take a 2-1 match lead.
“It was our own doing that cost us in those sets,” Shaffmaster said. “It’s hard to describe when you’re out there in the middle of it. Sometimes it gets so bad, like it did today, that you know you’re in a sinking ship and then you can’t really do anything about it.”
Although the Tar Heels rebounded in the fourth set, it all came undone in the fifth set. UNC made six errors, including a serve into the net for the final point, which ended a hard-fought win for Syracuse.
Nineteen games into the season last year, UNC was 15-4 and fresh off of a sweep of Syracuse. After Sunday's loss to the Orange, the Tar Heels are sitting at a cool 11-8.
“We need to practice really hard this week,” junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler said. “Everything in how you prepare is how you play, so starting off a new week with a good practice is really important.”
The physical talent within this North Carolina team is evident, as they showed through their two dominating set victories over the Orange on Sunday. However, if the team wants to reach its full potential and make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, they’ll need to work on maximizing the mental side of the game.
“We show our anxiety a little too much,” Sagula said. “It’s a mental thing, it’s not a physical thing. We served well, we blocked well, we had some really good passing. It’s not like we weren’t a good enough team, we just didn’t play good enough when we needed to.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.