Michigan falls just short in loss against North Carolina despite strong performance from junior outside hitter Paige Jones aGrace Beal/Daily. Buy this photo.

Victory against North Carolina was in their hands in front of an energetic crowd at Crisler Center. Leading the match 2-1 and building a comfortable 23-18 lead in the fourth set, all the Wolverines needed was two points to hand the Tar Heels their first loss of the season.  

But two points were evidently too much for Michigan. 

Instead, the Michigan volleyball team (4-2 overall) crumbled under a punishing 7-0 run from North Carolina. Despite calling multiple timeouts and making difficult digs to extend points, the Wolverines had no answer for outside hitter Mabrey Shaffmaster’s aerial assault. The freshman carried out four demoralizing kills in the final seven points to secure the set that would propel the Tar Heels to a five-set victory.

“(Shaffmaster) started just teeing off,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said. “… And next thing you know, now all of a sudden the momentum’s spinning.”  

Before Shaffmaster’s mastery at the net, however, Michigan was cruising in the would-be-clinching fourth set.

Early in the set, junior middle blockers Jess Robinson and May Pertofsky combined for an emphatic rejection of a Shaffmaster attack. Their block traveled near the back line of the court, soaring past the North Carolina defense and out of reach. 

Senior outside hitter Paige Jones, who was quiet earlier in the match, was starting to heat up. Following a clean set by sophomore setter Scottee Johnson, Jones ran up the sideline and took flight, launching the volleyball into the face of North Carolina outside hitter Parker Austin for a savage kill that tied the game at four. 

Two points later, Jones continued her display of force, attacking Austin once again. This time, Austin managed to get a hand on the ball, but it shanked out of bounds and into the stands.    

Jones entered into a serious rhythm by the middle of the game. At 12-9, she was commanding the outside with multiple strong attacks that had the Tar Heel defense scrambling. She then ran in for a finishing blow following another great set from Johnson to finish the lengthy point. 

The array of kills from Jones had the defense on their heels. Eyeing a clean set, Jones leaped into the air and cocked her hand back. Expecting yet another strong attack, North Carolina retreated, only for Jones to roll-shot the ball over the net, landing on the floor before a sprawling Tar Heel could dig. The crafty kill put the Wolverines up 16-12, and momentum was squarely with them. 

“We have four really good scoring positions,” Rosen said. “We were playing very well. … We were playing phenomenal.” 

The phenomenal play continued for Michigan as sophomore outside hitter Jess Mruzik, coming off a career-high 31 kill performance on Friday, painted the back corner of the court for an ace, forcing North Carolina to call a timeout. 

The Wolverine lead continued to grow, but at 23-18, a block by Austin and middle blocker Skyy Howard on an attack by Jones turned the tide, sparking the 7-0 run that ended the game. Following Michigan’s collapse, it was clear the tables of the match had turned. 

With the Tar Heels rallying, the crowd grew loud in response, but a miscommunication involving Jones led to a service ace by defensive specialist Karenna Wurl, whose serve landed relatively slowly onto the floor with no defender there to pass, bringing the margin within two.

With the score tied at 23, Robinson’s attack was rejected by outside hitter Kaya Merkler. Next, it was none other than Shaffmaster who ended the furious comeback with yet another kill. 

The momentum North Carolina carried after its late surge was too much for the Wolverines to overcome in the final frame, as they lacked a consistent attack and made a handful of unforced errors in the 15-9 fifth-set loss.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Hey let’s just move on to the next set,’ ” Rosen said. “But that’s a hard hurdle to kind of get over. … (This was) hopefully a good learning opportunity for us.”