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Duke volleyball upset at home against Pittsburgh in five sets

A thrilling five-set match spelled doom for the Blue Devils, who fell to Pittsburgh and dropped their third game in five tries.

In a match featuring lots of back-and-forth action, the Panthers took the most important sets—the first and last. Two sets featured win-by-two scenarios, and Pittsburgh won both, en route to a 27-29, 25-21, 25-27, 25-11, 11-15 Blue Devil stinger.

“At some point, we’ve got to understand that when we have an opportunity, we’ve got to take advantage of it,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. “We definitely could have had a couple of those sets.”

In many respects, Duke had the upper hand, boasting a roaring home crowd. It suffered only two service errors compared to Pittsburgh’s 10, attempted almost twice as many blocks as the Panthers and maintained a .247 attack percentage, compared to Pittsburgh’s .203.

Pittsburgh, however, managed 33 more attempts than Duke’s 166, as the Blue Devils suffered from what Nagel described as errors stemming from blocking and miscommunication.

In the first set, Pittsburgh took a 20-16 lead, but, led by fierce blocking by sophomore Jordan Tucker, errors from Pittsburgh and a few favorable calls, Duke tied the score at 22. In what would be a reoccurring theme throughout the match, though, Pittsburgh pulled ahead to win the set 27-25.

Building off the late momentum from the first set, the Blue Devils never trailed during the second set. Junior Emily Sklar posted seven of her 21 total kills during the set, and senior Jeme Obeime provided an energy boost. Sophomore Sasha Kovelov and senior Kelsey Williams saved shots with shoulders, collar bones, chests and fingertips to scrap for the Blue Devils initial set victory.

Tied 1-1, Duke trailed the third set 23-21, but a thundering outburst by Sklar tied things at 24. Still, Pittsburgh’s Casey Durham finished off the set for the Panthers, winning it 27-25.

“We were right there, we were 100 percent capable,” Tucker said. “We just didn’t do the little things to get where we needed to be.”

The fourth set was all Duke, who jumped out to a 16-4 lead and took it 25-11. Poor Pittsburgh serves, strong ball movement and a play in which Kerelov made two full-extension, fingertip digs highlighted Duke’s set dominance.

The fifth set, though, was a different animal. The 20th-ranked Blue Devils dropped four of the first five points, featured a rare service error, and suddenly trailed 8-5. Duke responded, however, and clawed its way back to an 11-11 deadlock, with Obeime bringing the hammer for part of her 13-kill night.

As the game reached a climax and the crowd stood on its toes, Duke teetered down the finish line. Pittsburgh won the final four points on two kills, a block and an ace en route to a 15-11 Duke stinger.

"[They] make [errors] at a certain time where it’s not a big deal,” Kerelov said. “But then when it actually needs to be done, they don’t make errors.”

Nagel echoed Karelov's sentiments, claiming errors were the Blue Devils' ultimate downfall.

“I think we gave good effort," she said. "We need to give smarter effort at times… understanding how hard you got to play every single time you play in the ACC.”

Speaking of the fierce conference competition, Duke has only a single day of rest before an away game at Syracuse Sunday. The meeting will be, like was the case for the Pittsburgh game, the only meeting this season between the two teams.

“I’m ready to get back on the court again and work for a different outcome,” Tucker said. “We work way too hard to let those things happen, so I think we’re excited about it.”

Adding to the woes, junior and starting outside hitter Breanna Atkinson continues to sit out with an ankle injury sustained in the loss to Virginia Tech last weekend. Nagel indicated Atkinson would not be out for a few weeks, but at least the next couple days.

After winning the previous 10 games, Duke has lost three of its past five, including the past two. With six games remaining, the Blue Devils certainly hopes to make a push before the NCAA tournament, which begins December 12.

“[We need to] use it as fuel too," Tucker said. "So it’s kind of like a double-edged sword. You want to forget about it, but then you’re like, “I need to use it to better myself.”

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