Two different Duke teams showed up last weekend at Cameron Indoor Stadium to start the second half of the ACC season.
The Blue Devils’ sloppy offensive play Friday night resulted in a 3-1 loss to North Carolina, but a strong defensive performance led to a comeback 3-2 victory against N.C. State Saturday.
After Duke lost to both teams earlier in the season, the team saw this weekend’s matchups as a chance to reverse its early-season misfortunes.
“We were going to recommit ourselves and really reflect and figure out what we needed to do in order to change something about ourselves,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. “We really wanted to make an impact in this second half, and I think we can.”
Although the Blue Devils (13-12, 4-9 in the ACC) could not overcome offensive errors against North Carolina, Saturday night they downed the Wolfpack (19-5, 9-4) in five sets (16-25, 25-22, 16-25, 27-25, 15-8) in the team’s most exciting win of the season. Duke tallied a season-high 17 blocks, holding N.C. State to a -.038 hitting percentage in the final two sets to seal the comeback win.
The Blue Devils began Saturday night’s match in a similar fashion to Friday’s loss against North Carolina, committing nine attack errors and dropping the opening set.
“We dug ourselves an awful hole at the beginning of the match,” Nagel said. “I was about ready to start making some changes. But then they started to come along and get in a rhythm.”
Three early kills from senior middle blocker Christiana Gray gave Duke an early 6-2 lead in the second frame, and the Blue Devils extended the margin to 18-11 before an 8-3 run by N.C. State forced a Duke timeout. After trading points back and forth in the closely contested set, freshman outside hitter Emily Sklar knocked down her fifth kill of the stanza to tie the match at 1-1.
The Wolfpack registered a .355 hitting percentage to take the third set 25-15 and assume a 2-1 lead overall. The Blue Devils committed eight errors in the frame and recorded a meager .088 hitting percentage.
“In that third set we shot ourselves in the foot and were very inconsistent,” Nagel said. “It was the unforced errors.”
The match seemed well in hand when N.C. State grabbed a 17-11 lead in the fourth set. But Duke rallied and went on a 9-3 tear highlighted by five team blocks and capped off with an ace by junior middle blocker Chelsea Cook to level the score at 20-20. The Blue Devils traded points back and forth with the Wolfpack and reached another tie at 25-25. Then freshman middle blocker Elizabeth Campbell recorded a kill and an ace to give the Blue Devils the fourth set 27-25 and tie the match at 2-2. Campbell finished the night with 12 kills, 10 digs and five blocks.
“We got down in that [fourth] set too because of some early blocking errors and we were out of position on defense,” Nagel said. “We dug ourselves a hole in that one too, so that’s why its so amazing that we came back.”
Six N.C. State attack errors allowed Duke to take a 10-1 lead to start the final frame, and the Wolfpack never came close to gaining the lead. The Blue Devils finished off the set on a block by Gray and freshman outside hitter Breanna Atkinson, completing the comeback and giving Duke a huge win against one of the ACC’s top teams.
After limited action against North Carolina due to a lingering ankle injury, Sklar recorded her team-leading seventh double-double against N.C. State with 20 kills—a season high—and 13 digs.
“We really, finally, got Emily back Saturday night, when she looked like her old self,” Nagel said. “We’ve missed having her skills out there on the court all the way around. So that was encouraging.”
Friday, Duke’s lack of offensive execution in the opening set provided the Tar Heels (19-4, 10-3) with an easy start on their way to a four-set victory (25-14, 25-18, 22-25, 25-17).
After dropping the first two sets, Duke rallied to win the third set taking advantage of seven attack errors and three service errors by the Tar Heels to bring the score to 2-1. The Blue Devils were led by a veteran duo of middle blockers—Cook and Gray. Cook racked up five kills and four blocks, while Gray added four kills on only six touches.
The Tar Heels jumped out to an early 5-0 lead in the fourth set and never looked back. Twenty-one attack errors and 10 service errors proved too much to overcome for Duke, and North Carolina’s offense posted a .245 overall hitting percentage on the night.
“I think we made too many errors early on in the match, and then obviously early in set four, to be able to give ourselves a chance to win tonight,” Nagel said. “That’s something we worked on all week—trying to minimize our errors, especially our hitting errors.... We have to be able to find some consistency somewhere because right now on any given day something might be going right, but everything else is struggling.”