Lights go out on Cal’s season in first-round loss to North Carolina

Giana Tansman/File

Trailing 18-16 in the fourth set, Correy Johnson made a dig on a crosscourt slam, sending a ball rocketing into the low-hanging ceiling of Firestone Fieldhouse.

Johnson’s shot shattered a light bulb, and glass descended on the Cal volleyball team’s side of the court. The Bears leaped out of the way, letting the ball fall to award North Carolina a point.

The Tar Heels lit up Malibu, Calif., in Thursday night’s opening round of the NCAA Tournament, shutting out the lights on Cal’s season.

Despite leading the match 2-1 and entering as heavy-handed favorites, the No. 10 Bears failed to close, and the unranked Tar Heels surged to upset Cal, 3-2 (25-17, 16-25, 23-25, 25-17, 15-9).

“I don’t think we played our best match by a long shot,” coach Rich Feller said. “(The Tar Heels) played hard, they played with abandon. They made a lot of good things happen and put a lot of pressure on us.”

After the glass had been cleared from the floor, North Carolina rattled off four straight points to extend the lead to 23-16. With a block on outside hitter Tarah Murrey, the Tar Heels tied the match at two.

North Carolina carried all of the momentum into the deciding fifth frame, quickly taking a commanding 6-1 lead. The Bears pushed back after switching sides at 8-3, going on a 4-1 tear led by two Shannon Hawari kills.

Tia Gaffen, who transferred from Cal after last season, was the one who rifled the ball off Johnson’s arms to break the light bulb. Gaffen was also the one to put the Bears on the verge of heartbreak, thundering down a kill on a slide play to push the North Carolina lead to 13-9.  The Tar Heels blocked outside hitter Adrienne Gehan to complete the upset, 15-9.

“It was definitely a surreal experience,” Gaffen said of playing her former team. “I knew going into the match that I am so happy with my choice … to win the match is just the cherry on top.”

Gaffen wasn’t the only thorn in Cal’s side. The Bears could not find an answer for power-hitting Emily McGee, who executed ball placement with precision and lethal force for her match-high 23 kills.

Putting two blockers on the outside hitter left Chaniel Nelson with several one-on-one match-ups on the right side, which the freshman exploited for 16 kills. Setter Erica Behm kept the Cal defense guessing, and largely guessing wrong.

While Murrey flashed her cannon on occasion, the All-American couldn’t muster up kills when the Bears needed them most. In her final collegiate match, Murrey led the team with 14 kills, but tallied nine errors on her 47 swings.

In the second set, the Bears more closely resembled the squad that took out No. 6 Stanford last Friday. After dropping the opening stanza, the Bears came out with some fire, ripping the set open with a 9-3 run to take a 20-13 lead, winning points with defense and a balanced attack.

In the final two sets, however, Cal looked more like the team that lost to Oregon State two weeks ago and were kept on the defensive. The lack of a commanding leader was never so obvious, as setter Elly Barrett couldn’t single out an attacker for a sure-fire kill.