Although Duke did not lose another five-set heartbreaker Sunday, the Blue Devils once again struggled down the stretch of every set. And it would cost them.
No. 25 Louisville defeated Duke 3-0 (25-23, 25-21, 25-22) at the KFC Yum! Center Sunday afternoon in Louisville, Ky., extending its unbeaten start in conference play to eight games and further slimming the Blue Devils' postseason chances. Although both teams put down 47 kills, Duke's 16 attack errors—seven more than were committed by the Cardinals—loomed large in the loss.
"We've got to eliminate our errors," Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. "In order to win that match, we can't have any out of positions on defense...service errors at crucial times or hitting errors at crucial times. And it's really that simple, for us to be able to get the set or for us to lose the set."
Heading into Sunday's contest, the Blue Devils (8-10, 3-5 in the ACC) needed to make adjustments with their block. Cardinal senior setter Katie George leads the ACC in assists per set and was poised to make any matchup at the net a nightmare for Duke. To make matters worse, Nagel's squad has been out-blocked 141-121 this season and came into the weekend ranked 225th in the country in blocks per set.
Those struggles continued in Kentucky.
The Cardinals (14-4, 8-0) finished with a .349 hitting percentage compared to the Blue Devils’ .246 clip. The Duke offense played well—with four players totaling at least eight kills and an above-.200 hitting percentage—but Louisville’s offense was even more dominant.
Senior outside hitter Erin Fairs led the Cardinals with 12 kills at a .385 clip, and sophomore Tess Clark led all players with a .667 hitting percentage to complement her eight kills. The Louisville back line also helped the team to two more service aces than the visitors and five more digs.
Louisville's offensive performance brought back memories of North Carolina’s sweep of Duke two weeks ago in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels dominated at the net, and after coming back to win the first set by two points and remaining deadlocked midway through the second set, North Carolina pulled away, forcing the Blue Devils to dig their way out of a hole.
The Blue Devils dropped the first four points of the opening set, but led by freshman middle blocker Leah Meyer and her five first-set kills, they recovered to take a 17-14 lead. The game was even at 22 when George fed Clark and Fairs for kills and Duke sophomore outside hitter Cadie Bates served the ball long to give Louisville the 1-0 edge.
"I think if we had gotten that first set, it would have made a big difference, without a doubt," Nagel said. "But you've got to just move on from that, you can't let that hold you down.... Somebody's got to make some plays at some crucial moment, too."
Duke began the second set trailing 11-10 when things slipped away. The Louisville offense—with the help of reigning ACC Freshman of the Week Aniah Philo's 11 kills and 11 digs—played much more fluidly and kept the Blue Devil defense on its toes. The Cardinals opened up a 24-17 second-set lead before Duke won the next four points, but the Blue Devil comeback would end there. Louisville took the frame, 25-21.
As was the case in the second set, the Blue Devils tried to claw their way back throughout the third frame. Meyer—whose 13 kills at a .440 clip set the tone for Duke throughout the match—teamed up with senior outside hitter Emily Sklar for seven kills in the final stanza, and junior middle blocker Jordan Tucker also got going down the stretch. But the Blue Devils' second straight late-set run was to no avail, getting only as close as 24-22.
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"We've lost some close ones, that's for sure," Nagel said. "[But] I feel like the team has made some really good improvement. They just have to hang tough right now mentally, because the road doesn't get any easier."
The Cardinals finished their weekend with a pair of sweeps after dispatching Wake Forest Friday, and Duke will have to settle for a 1-1 road trip after a straight-set win at Notre Dame. The Blue Devils will take on Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech at home this weekend.