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UNC volleyball shifts momentum in fourth set, defeats Duke to end regular season

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UNC junior outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster (9) celebrates with her teammates after a successful play during the volleyball match against Duke on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, at Cameron Indoor Stadium. UNC fell to Duke 3-1.

After his team suffered a reverse sweep at home against then-No. 25 Florida State, UNC volleyball coach Mike Schall said he wanted one big home win for his team.

Fast forward to Friday, and that big home win seemed out of reach yet again. Down 2-1 against Duke on Senior Day, UNC fell behind 16-7 in the fourth set before the Tar Heels flipped the script.

UNC roared back to tie the match at two sets and then claimed the fifth set to snatch a rivalry win from the brink of defeat. After several games this season in which UNC was on the wrong end of a reverse sweep or momentum shift, the Tar Heels found the confidence to not only survive an opponent run, but turn the momentum in their favor.

For much of this season, the Tar Heels' struggles with opponent surges have been attributed to their youth — out of 16 players, 11 are first-years or sophomores. Oftentimes, junior outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster finds herself the oldest player on the court besides graduate setter Maria Miggins.

As a result, Shaffmaster said the Tar Heels have a problem believing in themselves sometimes.

Duke is not an opponent that lends much confidence, either. Shaffmaster admitted that, against the Blue Devils’ blocking game, finding a spot to hit the ball was a challenge.

As Duke went on a 9-1 run to build a 13-4 lead in the fourth set, Shaffmaster saw UNC lose belief.

“I think we just kind of thought, ‘This is over, they’re already up two sets, it doesn't matter,’” Shaffmaster said.

The match was eerily similar to how the Tar Heels lost belief against Florida State, a game in which Shaffmaster lamented how UNC let doubt take over — so during a timeout, she didn't mince words with her teammates.

She told them they had nothing to lose. To have fun in what could be their last set of the season. That they were the better team. Shaffmaster tried to take the pressure off her young team and convince them they could turn it around.

“I knew for a fact that if we just came out and we just played our game, we were going to be fine,” Shaffmaster said.

That pep talk flipped a switch.

“We all look to [Shaffmaster] as a leader, so seeing her so fired up and having belief in us, I think it really just got the whole team on board,” first-year outside hitter Sydney Nolan said.

From that timeout, the Tar Heels came alive. They communicated more. They threw more bodies on the floor. What had been a Duke blocking showcase became a UNC block party, with the first-year Nolan notching a career-high 11 block assists.

From 16-7 down, UNC stole the set 28-26 and stole the momentum.

Never again would UNC trail Duke as they took control of the fifth set. Shaffmaster told the Tar Heels not to allow any runs. Besides a brief 3-0 run at the end, Duke had no runs. UNC had become a different team.

The block game came in clutch again, as Nolan combined with graduate outside hitter Emani’ Foster to make the block that clinched match point. Comeback complete. Finally, Schall’s team had found the confidence necessary to secure a big home win.

UNC would have liked to show it could keep belief earlier than the last game of the season. Still, this victory may show the young Tar Heels what is possible when they stay confident.

“You gotta walk out there with some swag and just say, ‘Oh well, F it, I'm just gonna go there and play my game and see what happens,’” Shaffmaster said.

@dmtwumasi

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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