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Entering the sixth set tied at 10-10, Syracuse and North Carolina were in a heated battle heading down the stretch. Both head coaches huddled their teams together to give last-minute adjustments, but as the teams scattered to their positions, one Syracuse player did their best to loosen the tension of the situation.
Sophomore middle blocker Abby Casiano danced her way toward the net, prompting her fellow teammates to join in. While Casiano realized the gravity of the situation, she knew that tightening up would not lead the Orange to victory on Friday.
“Making someone laugh, making someone smile, it always helps just calming everyone down,” Casiano said. “We’ll play loose and play our game instead of being so in our heads about the next ball coming.”
While Syracuse lost the final set 18-16, Casiano had quite a few reasons to boogie. Leading the team in hitting percentage by almost 30%, Casiano also tied her career-high for total blocks (9), which she set against Boston College in 2019. She led the team in kills alongside senior outside hitter Yulia Yastrub and also led in points, with 19.5.
“I might have had a decent game,” Casiano said. “There’s always room for improvement, and I’m excited to get back out there and work hard.”
While the Orange didn’t emerge victorious, the team held their own against an opponent they’ve held a 1-8 all-time record against. Led by Casiano, Syracuse out-blocked UNC in four out of five sets and had a season-high 14 total blocks. While the team had an exceptional day up front, head coach Leonid Yelin said the team did not change their gameplan to be more aggressive at the net.
“It’s the first line of defense,” Yelin said. “It’s something that you have to do as a team. We want to help our defense and make our defense right, and being better on the block does that.”
One of the match’s most crucial blocks came from Casiano at the end of the fourth set, with Syracuse leading 21-18. Down two sets to one, the Orange were on their last legs, needing a spark to propel the team into a deciding fifth set. As a Tar Heel player rose to spike the ball toward the back-right corner, Casiano met her at the net, slamming the ball back down to the ground for a forceful 22nd point.
As she came back down to the ground, Casiano emphatically yelled words of encouragement at her teammates, willing the team to win the set 25-19. While he agreed that Casiano is a leader on the team, Yelin said Casiano’s enthusiasm is nothing out of the ordinary.
“We’re expecting (passion) from everyone,” Yelin said. “I see her every day, and nothing really changes in her attitude.”
While the team excelled at the net, Syracuse had its woes with hitting percentage. Other than Casiano’s game-high 48.1%, the Orange had no players crack above 20 hitting percentage, which paid dividends in the end. In the two sets that Syracuse won, the Orange out-hit the Tar Heels by over 7%. Yet, in the three sets North Carolina won, the Tar Heels out-hit the Orange by a combined 33.3%.
“We know what we have to do now,” Yastrub said. “This game showed us where we need to focus to do better.”
When a match is competitive to the very end, there are a lot of small instances that you wish had gone differently, Yastrub said. When the Orange find themselves in this situation again, Yastrub believes they need to make an extra push to get the outcome they deserve.
“We knew we could do better,” Yastrub said. “We didn’t do the little things we needed to beat them.”
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