CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 11 North Carolina volleyball improved to 6-0 on Friday night after handing No. 2 Wisconsin (5-1) its first loss of the season in five sets (25-23, 25-27, 23-25, 25-20, 15-11). Carolina outlasted the Badgers’ relentless defense to knock off a top-two team for the first time in program history.
“It’s very rewarding to know that so many people can contribute to the success of the team,” said head coach Joe Sagula. “Everybody on the team worked hard to push each other to get to this level. This is a result of that. To see them produce in a big-time match like this is extremely rewarding. It’s great for the players on the court, but everyone shared in that. I don’t care which player — from 1 to 19 — everybody is excited to have this result.”
Just six matches into 2016, Carolina has already taken down two top-10 teams out of the Big Ten, having defeated No. 9 Penn State in State College on opening weekend. It marks the first time in school history that UNC has beaten two top-10 teams in the same season, and the Tar Heels will have a shot at a third on Saturday against No. 5 Minnesota. Friday’s win was the eighth all time over at top-10 opponent and fourth since 2014.
Redshirt sophomore Taylor Leath posted Carolina’s first 20-kill match since 2013, tallying career highs with 23 kills and 19 digs for her third double-double. Her 23 slams were the most for a Tar Heel since 2011, while the last Tar Heel to register more than 23 was Lauren Prussing back in 2008.
“I think I just really trusted myself and my team and I knew that we had to get after it,” Leath said. “There was one point where [Coach said]: ‘We’re physical, that’s our strength, go after it. Take big swings, be big like you are.’ That really stuck with me and registered, so every ball, I said, ‘Take a swing!’ and good things tend to happen when I do that.”
Freshman Julia Scoles tallied her fourth double-double in just six matches as a Tar Heel, posting personal-best marks with 18 kills and 15 digs. Redshirt junior Taylor Fricano, who spent her first two collegiate seasons at Wisconsin, matched her career high with 15 kills, hitting .407.
Abigail Curry and Mariah Evans split setting duties in a 6-2 throughout the match, as Curry neared a double-double with 36 assists and nine digs while Evans dished out a personal-best 27.
The Tar Heel blocking unit, which entered the match leading the nation with an average of 3.67 blocks per set, dominated at the net once again, stuffing a total of 17 blocks. Former Badger Fricano led the match with a career-high seven stuffs, while Sydnye Fields slammed six and Hayley McCorkle put down five.
“They’re really resilient,” said Fricano on Wisconsin. “We tried to emulate that on our side as well with our blocks. We kept thinking, ‘It’s okay, we have a huge block on our side. There’s a good chance it’s going to go back over there.’ It was frustrating, but they get tired. They keep digging and we keep blocking. That’s why it went to five games. We didn’t get frustrated. That’s one of the key points to why we were successful tonight.”
“We knew they were going to play good defense — and they played unbelievable defense,” Sagula added, “but keeping pressure on the opponent and not making it easy for them is what allowed us to stay calm and collected.”
Wisconsin raced out to an 8-2 lead to start the match, but Carolina regrouped after a timeout to pull within one, 9-8. A Badger block kept UNC from tying the score and a great service run by Molly Haggerty helped Wisconsin push back in front, 18-12.
The Tar Heels never gave in, putting together a 7-0 run to take their first lead of the night, 19-18, on a kill by Fricano. A block by Fricano and Scoles made it 21-19 UNC, but Wisconsin fought back to retake the lead, 22-21, on a solo block. A kill by Scoles retied the score, and back-to-back blocks made it Carolina set point, 24-22. After a Carolina service error, Hayley McCorkle finished off a tough rally with a kill to win the first set for UNC, 25-23.
The nation’s leading blocking unit did what they do best in the opening frame, holding the No. 2 team in the country to a -.024 clip with the help of six blocks.
The second set was neck and neck, as the score was tied 13 times throughout the frame. A 4-0 Carolina run midway through the set flipped a 13-11 deficit to a 15-13 lead, and a kill by Leath made it 18-15 UNC. However, Wisconsin battled back to tie the score at 19. Another Leath kill made it 22-21, but back-to-back Badger blocks made it Wisconsin set point, 24-22. Fricano came through with two straight kills to tie it at 24 and a Leath kill retied the score at 25, but two straight slams from Tionna Williams ended the second stanza in Wisconsin’s favor, 27-25.
Neither team took more than a one-point lead in the third until a 6-0 run by Wisconsin made it 16-12 Badgers. UNC bounced back with a pair of blocks to pull back within one, 18-17, but the Tar Heels were unable to tie the score, and soon Wisconsin reached set point, 24-21. Kills by Fricano and Scoles held off two attempts to finish it, but a serve out of bounds handed Wisconsin the third set, 25-23.
The fourth set started just like the previous two until a service ace by Leath sparked a 7-0 run as the Tar Heels took a dominating 21-13 lead. Wisconsin continued to battle, reaching the 20-point mark, but Leath’s 22nd kill of the night closed out the fourth, 25-20, to force a deciding fifth set.
Finding themselves in a familiar position, having coming back from down 1-2 to No. 9 Penn State just 13 days earlier, Carolina stayed confident and came out ready for the short tiebreaking set.
“I told them: ‘We’ve been here before, two weeks ago. Now we’re home, so we know what it’s going to take,’ Sagula said. “I think they showed poise that allowed them to not get rattled.”
A kill and two blocks by Taylor Treacy spotted Carolina a 3-0 lead to start the short fifth set, but Wisconsin battled back to tie the score at six. Fricano connected for a kill three times with the score tied to keep Wisconsin from taking a lead, and a pair of Badger attack errors set up Tar Heel match point, 14-10. Despite having taken just one swing so far in the fifth set — an error — Taylor Leath won’t ever forget her next one, as she buried the final kill of the night to give Carolina the unforgettable victory, 15-11.
Carolina does not have long to celebrate, as the Tar Heels return to Carmichael Arena on Saturday to face No. 5 Minnesota in the final match of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Saturday’s play kicks off with Wisconsin vs. Louisville at 4 p.m. before UNC takes the court at 6:30 p.m.