The North Carolina volleyball team (12-8, 4-5 ACC) swept North Carolina State (11-9, 5-4 ACC) 3-0 in a key rivalry game on the road.
Neither team took a lead greater than three in the first set. Starting for only the fourth time in 12 matches played, senior middle hitter Skyy Howard was key to UNC’s blocking game, assisting in getting points off blocks and making returns easier for her team.
However, UNC could not establish a lead and were down 24-22 in the set. Head coach Joe Sagula called a timeout, after which North Carolina took four consecutive points and the set 26-24.
The struggle to control the game continued in the second set until North Carolina took a 12-11 lead and never would trail again. Many of UNC’s kills were soft, lofted hits aiming for holes in the middle of NC State’s defense. This strategy proved effective, ballooning the Tar Heels’ lead to eight and winning the set by as much, 25-17.
Even when NC State showed signs of evading UNC’s block and plugging holes in the middle—making a 6-0 run to tie the set at 11 and another push to make the game 19-18 to UNC, North Carolina stuck to their strategy, embarking on a 6-0 run to take the set and the match.
Who stood out?
Having only played 24 sets this season, Howard’s season-high eight kills and team-high four blocks justified Sagula’s decision to hand her a rare start.
Finding holes with soft kills required first-year setter Anita Babic to expand her game beyond assists, which she answered with six kills while still recording a game-high 27 assists.
The kill strategy was also powered by sophomore outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster. Her 12 kills were supplemented with a further 9 kills from junior middle hitter Kaya Merkler, who, after a rough start, found her rhythm and registered a .438 hitting percentage, second only to Babic’s .500.
Shaffmaster and graduate outside hitter Charley Niego found themselves returning spikes more than their attack-focused games usually demand, each ending with 13 digs. First-year libero Maddy May’s 11 digs also powered the team’s defense, particularly in the first set.
When was it decided?
Momentum in the third set looked to be heading NC State’s way after a 7-3 run brought the set to 19-18 in UNC’s favor, as the Tar Heels failed to find the same holes in the middle and committed several attack errors from deep spikes going out of bounds.
Going back to their plan, UNC found holes in the NC State defense once more and defended staunchly against powerful spikes. A 6-0 run featuring five straight kills proved enough to decide the match.
Why does it matter?
A loss to Syracuse endangered UNC’s Atlantic Coast Conference position, sliding the team to 3-5.
Though the road to an NCAA Tournament bid remains narrow, a sweep in a rivalry game may serve as a turning point for a North Carolina team whose mental fortitude has been questioned by both players and coach.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels travel next to Durham for another rivalry game against Duke on Sunday at 1pm.
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