The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Monday, Sept. 25, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

UNC volleyball overcomes challenging road atmospheres in rivalry wins at N.C. State and Duke

Senior middle hitter Skyy Howard (8) spikes the ball over the net. UNC beat High Point 3-2 at home on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022.

Coming into road games against N.C. State and Duke, North Carolina volleyball head coach Joe Sagula emphasized the importance of his team’s mentality in tense moments.

In both of the Tar Heels’ rivalry games, the team overcame mental blocks to get out of tough situations in their 3-0 and 3-1 wins over the Wolfpack and Blue Devils on Friday and Sunday, respectively.

Nearing the end of the first set against N.C. State in front of a packed Reynolds Coliseum crowd, UNC was down 24-22 when Sagula called a timeout to refocus his team.

After the Tar Heels came out of the timeout, they went on a 4-0 run to win the first set, a far different outcome compared to similar situations they faced in a recent five-set loss against Syracuse.

“That timeout let our team know that we were capable of coming back even if we were down by two points,” sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster said. “(Sagula) calling that timeout allowed us to have a moment to regroup and tell ourselves that it was doable to come back.”

From there, North Carolina held the momentum and won the next two sets, 25-17 and 25-18, thanks to the play of senior middle hitter Skyy Howard and first-year setter Anita Babic.

Howard contributed a season-high eight kills and four digs to go along with a team-leading four blocks in North Carolina’s win. Babic was not only valuable by setting up her teammates with 27 assists, but also by picking apart the Wolfpack defense by dumping the ball to empty areas on the court to match her career high with six kills. 

“Skyy had a phenomenal match with one of her best matches of the year,” Sagula said. “Anita was doing a good job of keeping them off balance and reading their defense well. The combination of Anita and Skyy offensively was remarkable.”

In the game against the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels found themselves in favorable situations, such as leading 24-18 in the first set. Duke stormed back with a 5-0 run to get within a point, but graduate outside hitter Charley Niego shut the door with a kill to set the stage for her eventual double-double.

In the third set, the Tar Heels found themselves up 23-15. Again, Duke would mount a run, getting as close as 24-20 before UNC closed it out with a kill from Shaffmaster, who led the team in kills with 18 and digs with 11.

“We have a tendency to get more comfortable because we’re a younger team and I think that plays a role,” Babic said. “I think once we find a way to finish the game, we’re good to move onto the next set and we tried to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”

Wins against rivals like N.C. State and Duke are big momentum boosters, but pairing the fact that they were on the road in hostile places, it provides a sense of confidence for the inexperienced team.

“Sometimes our confidence falters, and a lot of different factors play in when you have a young team and have young players in important positions,” Shaffmaster said. “Duke and N.C. State are both very good teams, and of course they’re our rivals, so it was just a big confidence boost for us because we haven’t always played the best.”

With eight conference games remaining, five of those being at home, UNC must capitalize on the momentum, as the team sits only a game out of being tied for fourth place in the ACC.

“I think beating Duke and N.C. State could be a stepping stone to building even more confidence down the road,” Sagula said.  


@dthsports |

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.