CHAPEL HILL — When North Carolina’s Emily McGee applied the finish to a five-set win against N.C. State on Wednesday, the Wolfpack wasn’t as concerned with ending the regular season with a loss to a rival as it was losing control of its future.
A win against North Carolina, comfortably in third place in the ACC, would have all but assured N.C. State its first NCAA tournament bid in 25 years. Instead, the fourth-place Wolfpack will have to wait nervously until Sunday afternoon, when the tournament field is announced (4 p.m., ESPNU).
“We knew that a win today would have sealed our fate, into the NCAAs,” said senior setter Megan Cyr, the team’s only all-ACC player. “That’s what kind of hurts us right now. We put our destiny into the hands of other people instead of taking it into our own hands. It’s kind of a letdown for us.”
This is how far N.C. State volleyball has come in three years: Being on the NCAA tournament bubble is a letdown. This is the same program that went 1-127 in the ACC from 2001 through ’07. This is the same program that has made one NCAA tournament appearance in 38 years of existence.
Sure, it’ll be a nervous afternoon Sunday. But it’s an amazing position for N.C. State to be in.
Since hiring Bryan Bunn in the spring of 2010 -- Lee Fowler’s last head-coach hire as athletics director – the Wolfpack has gone from 14 wins to 20 last year to 22-9 this year, 12-8 in the ACC. That’s the program’s best overall record since 1983 and best ACC finish since 1990.
N.C. State has won as many ACC games in three years under Bunn as it had in the previous 15 years.
“It would mean a ton,” Bunn said. “The girls have been here working hard for three years and that’s their goal. It’s been 25 years since we’ve been in. It would be good for the program.”
Cyr, native of Manitoba who transferred to N.C. State from Colorado, could have gone just about anywhere, but she saw an opportunity at N.C. State to make a difference. She knew Bunn, who had recruited her while he was an assistant coach at Baylor, and she saw promise in the program.
“Everyone who has come in here has bought into the program and the idea of turning this program around,” Cyr said. “Everyone has that mentality and that fight and grit about them, that they don’t want to be the underdogs anymore.”
That’s why Wednesday was so important for the Wolfpack. N.C. State had won the first meeting between the teams in September, and another win against a high-quality opponent would likely have put it over the top.
In the end, North Carolina’s superior athleticism and depth proved too tough for N.C. State to overcome on the road, although N.C. State fought back to win the fourth set and force a fifth before the Tar Heels won 26-28, 25-17, 25-20, 24-26, 15-7.
“We’re not the biggest team in the conference, but we are the scrappiest, and we fight harder than anyone else,” Bunn said.
The Tar Heels have so many NCAA appearances, they had to hang a second banner at Carmichael Arena to accommodate their 2011 bid, their 13th. They missed out last year, but they’re a lock this year.
After Wednesday’s match, N.C. State has no such security.
“Honestly, I could never have imagined I would even be sitting on a selection Sunday hoping our school name would be called,” Cyr said. “But I knew going into this year we had a special team, and we could do that.”
DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock