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UNC volleyball defeats Duke in five-set thriller to close out regular season

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UNC first-year outside hitter Sydney Nolan (5) taps the ball during the volleyball match against Duke on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The North Carolina volleyball team (12-15, 7-11 ACC) clinched a rivalry win in five sets over Duke (19-10, 10-8 ACC) on Senior Day.

The Blue Devils took early control of the first set, blocking any Tar Heel who tried a spike at the net. Duke recorded three blocks en route to a 12-7 lead before UNC head coach Mike Schall called a timeout.

“They're also a very good blocking team, so that's why we swing high and really get the middle involved, because they're on the pins like no other,” junior outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster said.

After the timeout, UNC varied its kills with short-distance taps at the net knowing the Duke block was coming. 

But the Tar Heels couldn’t find a way to counter Duke’s powerful spikes, particularly from Blue Devil Lizzie Fleming who recorded four kills in the set. UNC conceded the first set 25-22.

By the second set, beating the Duke block was no problem for UNC, forcing several blocking errors from the Blue Devils. But without arresting Duke’s kill game, UNC never took control of the set, and a 6-0 Duke run put the Tar Heels down 19-12.

From that point, UNC unlocked its own block game. Led by first-year hitters Safi Hampton and Sydney Nolan, the Tar Heels recorded four blocks in the period and came back to steal the set 27-25.

“[Blocking] obviously just takes dedication and the will to just get up there and really just give it your all, because it is very easy to get tooled,” Nolan said. “And you really just have to know what you want to do in the moment. So a lot of practice, for sure.”

A back-and-forth third set saw the Blue Devils pull away after Duke challenged a kill from Swift. A hit that could have cut Duke’s lead to 16-14 instead gave Duke a 17-13 lead. 

UNC attempted to claw back but could never flip the momentum, losing the set 25-21 and going down 2-1 in the match.

North Carolina spiraled in the fourth set, with several errors in trying to return Duke serves. UNC went down 8-3 before Schall called an early timeout, then down as much as nine points at 16-7.

Around this time, Shaffmaster attempted to fire her team up. Wanting the Tar Heels to play spoiler for Duke’s NCAA Tournament hopes, Shaffmaster told her teammates they had nothing to lose.

Her pep talk worked. The Tar Heels roared back with a 6-0 run and eventually brought the set to within two points at 22-20. The tandem of Shaffmaster and graduate outside hitter Emani’ Foster took over the game, as UNC forced Duke into a tiebreaker.

Two straight Shaffmaster kills beat the Duke block and clinched the fourth set for North Carolina, tying the match up at two games apiece.

“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.

The fifth set marked the first in which UNC did not have to mount a comeback, never trailing in the period and taking a 12-9 lead before a Duke timeout. Shaffmaster credited the team’s momentum from their comeback in the fourth set to control the fifth.

Shaffmaster shined again, ending with a game-high 25 kills. Yet it was a block from Foster and Nolan which would clinch a 15-12 set victory and a 3-2 match win.

This game marks the end of North Carolina’s regular season. UNC now awaits the announcement of at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament.

@dmtwumasi

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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