MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.- The Tar Heels hung tough with Texas, but ended their historic season with a 3-1 (21-25, 25-18, 20-25, 29-31) loss Saturday night in the NCAA Regional Final.
North Carolina dueled neck-and-neck statistically with the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament, as both teams knocked down 61 kills while UNC registered one more overall dig (85) than Texas (84).
“This was quite a battle; I think that was the best word to describe this,” said Head Coach Joe Sagula.
“From the opening set that we played, to the second set that we were able to come back and win, to the third set, my memory takes me to that really long rally that went back and forth – just great volleyball, both teams fighting it out on both sides.”
Much like all season, the Tar Heels leaned on their seniors for a stellar effort in their final match. Lauren McAdoo paced the offense with 14 kills, while Chaniel Nelson registered 13 kills and two blocks. Classmate Ece Taner registered 17 digs, two service aces, and three assists.
The Tar Heels fell to the Longhorns in set one, despite hitting .206 as a team and Nelson pounding five kills in the frame. Texas turned back 2.0 blocks and held the UNC outside hitters to only two kills, with three errors, limiting Carolina’s out-of-system opportunities.
Texas jumped to a 10-6 lead, and then pushed the advantage to five at 15-10 heading into the media timeout. A 3-0 run from UNC, capped by a block from Leigh Andrew and McPherson, cut the score to 17-15.
However, Texas responded with its own run to go up 21-15 late and then cruise to a 25-21 win.
North Carolina responded in a big way in set two, dropping Texas 25-18 behind four kills from Taylor Treacy and three kills from Victoria McPherson.
The Tar Heels jumped to a 5-0 lead in the frame thanks to a strong run on the serve of Andrew, who had two service aces in the run. Overall, UNC had three aces and only one error from behind the service line in the game.
Carolina maintained the lead throughout the set, but the strong serve of Haley Eckerman helped Texas cut the score to 19-17 late. An error by the Longhorns, followed by a kill from Treacy, helped the Heels respond and take a 22-17 advantage.
A kill from Andrew sealed the set, 25-18, for UNC, and tied the match at 1-1 overall.
In set three, UNC fell behind 3-0 early and struggled to catch up in the set. The Longhorns turned out a stellar offensive performance in the frame, attacking at a .298 clip while limiting Carolina to a .175 hitting percentage.
The pivotal point came with Texas leading 17-16 in set three, after the Tar Heels had mounted a 4-0 run to close the lead. The Longhorns won an incredible rally on a tip from Amy Neal that firmly swung momentum and let Texas finish the third set, 25-20, on another 4-0 run.
North Carolina got off to another shaky start in the fourth set, falling behind 7-4 after Texas notched a service ace. The Tar Heels responded and tied the match at 10-10 after a kill by McAdoo.
Carolina finally took the lead at 22-21 late in the frame, as UNC forced an error from Texas’ Nicole Dalton. Another kill from McAdoo gave the Tar Heels a 23-21 advantage, and then she notched another kill after Texas scored to give UNC set points at 24-22.
The Texas defense then made a statement, notching a block after a Carolina service error to tie the set at 24-24.
The two teams then traded point for point heading into extra volleyball. UNC had three set points, while Texas had five set points and finally converted at 31-29 after a Carolina swing went long.
Taylor Treacy notched 12 kills, five digs and three blocks in the match, while Victoria McPherson had nine kills and six blocks. Paige Neuenfeldt rounded out the offensive effort with eight kills and two blocks on the night.
The Tar Heels placed three players on the All-Regional team, as Taner, Nelson and Treacy were honored for their performance this weekend. Haley Eckerman, a senior outside hitter for the Longhorns, was named Most Outstanding Player of the regional.
North Carolina wraps up its season with a 29-3 overall record, the best overall record in school history. UNC, the ACC champions, advanced the farthest of any of the four ACC teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2014.
“One of our missions this year was to be a team that was nationally relevant and I feel like we’ve accomplished that, and because of that I feel like that we’ve gained a lot from this experience and I know this hurts to lose this so close, and to be this close, but you need to be here, you need to experience it, and I couldn’t ask for anymore from any one of these players,” said Sagula.