With the Blue Devils off to a strong start against their rival, the last thing they needed was another injury.
But Duke was handed more adversity in the second set of Thursday’s match against North Carolina with little time to bounce back.
Following a first-set victory against the No. 12 Tar Heels Thursday evening at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils lost senior middle blocker Alyse Whitaker in the second set before falling 3-1 (22-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-20) to their rival. North Carolina came back thanks to a program-record 21 blocks and got a dominant performance from freshman Julia Scoles, who notched a double-double with 17 kills and 14 digs.
“We are still trying to find ourselves and we had to play a really strong opponent [in] UNC in the fourth match of the year when we are also still trying to get some of our players back to be full strength,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. “We didn’t execute as well as we could throughout. There were moments that were really [close] but we weren’t consistent with that.”
The Blue Devils (3-1) got off to a strong start in front of a raucous crowd, overcoming a 15-12 deficit after a timeout to win the opening set on a Cindy Marina lob. One of Duke’s several underclassmen contributors, Marina stuffed the stat sheet with 38 assists and 13 digs, setting up returners Jordan Tucker, Leah Meyer and Anna Kropf for several kills early on. Each member of the trio recorded double-digit kills, with Meyer making her first appearance of the season after recovering from an ankle injury and Kropf playing as an outside hitter for the first time in her career.
“We want to be as variable as possible [to] keep the other team guessing,” Tucker said. “So it was important for us to have a lot of people firing at one time. It makes our job a lot easier.”
Despite the early deficit, the Tar Heels (4-0) showed why they are a top-15 team. North Carolina opened up a 13-6 lead in the set before quickly evening the contest, using an efficient attack and several timely blocks to frustrate the Blue Devils. Scoles was quiet in the first set but left her mark on the rest of the game, pouring in nine kills in the second set to grab momentum for the visiting team.
As the ACC Freshman of the week energized the Tar Heels, Duke struggled at times in the final two sets. Although the Blue Devils knotted the third frame at 23 before dropping the set, at times Duke looked like a team laden with young players. Several times throughout the match, the Blue Devils were caught standing still and looking at each other as well-placed North Carolina spikes and lobs landed near them.
“They need to open their mouths a bit and make sure that doesn’t happen,” Nagel said. “That’s a mental mistake [rather] than a physical mistake, so I would like us to take a step up mentally and be able to execute a little bit better.”
Following the third set, the Tar Heels made sure Duke would not get any more momentum, frequently stuffing the Blue Devils at the net after their 19.5-block effort in a win against No. 9 Penn State Sunday.
Duke will look to recover quickly before hosting the Horned Frogs (3-0) Friday, when the Blue Devils will look to avoid their first losing streak of 2016.
“TCU is a very physical team. They are a good team and they didn’t play tonight,” Nagel said. “We have got to make sure that we got that energy when it comes to game time tomorrow at 6:30.”
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