After beginning the season 3-0, the South Carolina volleyball team was swept on a three-game road trip against ACC opponents.
"Overall, we're a little frustrated because we would've liked to have come away with hopefully three wins, or at least one or two," head coach Tom Mendoza said. "Going and playing three road matches is tough, but I think we learned a lot about what we need to be better."
The Gamecocks' season-opening win streak was snapped on Friday after falling in straight sets to North Carolina.
South Carolina's offense struggled throughout the match, finishing with a .160 hit percentage and 31 kills to the Tar Heels' .380 hit percentage and 49 kills.
In the first set, the Gamecocks won two of the first three points but were unable to win consecutive points for the rest of the set. North Carolina showed its defensive prowess in the opening frame, amassing seven blocks to South Carolina's one on its way to a 25-11 victory.
The second set proved to be more evenly matched but North Carolina emerged victorious 25-23. After being down 24-17 late in the set after the Tar Heels grew their lead, the Gamecocks won six consecutive points but were unable to win the decisive point to force a tiebreaker.
South Carolina was unable to carry its late second-set momentum into the third, losing the final set 25-16. Despite having a clean service game, the Tar Heels' 21 kills and early 8-2 lead were too much for the team to overcome.
Junior outside hitter Riley Whitesides led the Gamecocks offense with eight kills, and junior middle blocker Ellie Ruprich was another bright spot for the team with one dig, one block and five kills on 10 total attacks.
In its second game on Friday, South Carolina was defeated by Wake Forest 3-1.
Unlike the Gamecocks' previous matchup against North Carolina -- where two of the three sets were decided by nine points or more -- all four sets in this game were decided by four points or fewer.
South Carolina relied heavily on kills to win a back-and-forth first set, which the team won 25-22. The Gamecocks registered 19 kills in the set and capitalized on four attacking errors by the Demon Deacons to gain the early lead.
The first set would be the only one South Carolina would win even though the team was competitive in each of the next three sets. Errors in service and on offense proved to be the difference for the Gamecocks, as they accumulated nine more total errors than their opponents.
Despite the loss, Ruprich and Whitesides put up big performances for the Gamecocks. Whitesides led the team in kills (15) and added eight digs, while Ruprich registered nine kills and seven blocks along with a .467 hit percentage.
South Carolina's final game of the road trip ended in defeat by a 3-2 score to rival Clemson.
The Tigers won the first set 25-22 after South Carolina's offense struggled out of the gate. Clemson was never able to build a strong lead in the set, but the Gamecocks' .000 hit percentage and 11 errors held them back.
"I think we were pretty slow starting offensively — we need to do a better job of that," Mendoza said. "When you lose the first set, especially on the road, you put yourself into a tough position."
The visitors' offense sprung to life in a second set that featured 11 ties and five lead changes. South Carolina's 20 kills and .288 hit percentage helped knot the game at one set apiece.
Clemson and South Carolina alternated winning the third and fourth sets, respectively, after the Gamecocks took an early lead in both. The Tigers came back from a 22-17 deficit to win the third set 25-23, and the Gamecocks were able to hold onto the lead in the fourth to win 25-21 and force a deciding set.
In the fifth set, Clemson pulled away early and never relinquished the lead to cinch a win. The Tigers dominated on offense with a .375 hit percentage and nine kills. In comparison, South Carolina's hit percentage was -.062 and only totaled three kills.
Sophomore outside hitter Lauren McCutcheon and graduate student libero Jenna Hampton provided the Gamecocks with valuable individual performances even though the team fell short of victory. McCutcheon accumulated a career-high 19 kills along with three digs and four blocks, while Hampton came up big on defense with 31 digs.
"Especially after the first set, I thought (McCutcheon) was doing a really good job of taking swings," Mendoza said. "I think (Jenna's) one of the best liberos in the country, and this is probably the first match of the six where she really was just ... taking over, which is tough to do as a defender."
South Carolina will return to the Carolina Volleyball Center where it will face off against Cincinnati in a weekend doubleheader. First serve is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Friday and 1 p.m. on Saturday. Both games will be aired on SEC Network+.
"We need to go back and play good volleyball in front of our crowd," Mendoza said. "We're trying to make the Carolina Volleyball Center the best home atmosphere in the region, or certainly in the SEC, and I think, the first weekend, we did a good job of that, and we want to make sure we protect our court."