With a month left in the regular season, the Blue Devils sat 84th in RPI heading into last week's games, likely needing a boost to make the NCAA tournament.
With its first win of the year against an RPI top-50 team, Duke got the first of many victories it will likely need to meet its season goal.
The Blue Devils swept Louisville for the second time this season 3-0 (25-22, 26-24, 25-15) Friday before avenging a loss to Notre Dame Sunday 3-1 (25-18, 25-15, 24-26, 25-11) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke leads the ACC in digs per set and continued leaning on its defense this weekend, posting more than 20 per set as it held the Cardinals and Fighting Irish to hitting percentages worse than .170.
On the offensive end, middle blockers Jordan Tucker and Leah Meyer continued leading the way, combining for 48 kills in the two games. But the Blue Devils also got a career weekend from freshman outside hitter Samantha Amos, who posted a career-high 15 kills against Louisville before topping it with 16 against Notre Dame.
Junior outside hitter Cadie Bates added double-digit kills Sunday as Duke's role players continued their strong play—the team has now won four in a row and 10 of its last 11 games.
“Volleyball is such a team sport, so it takes a lot of different people contributing. I’ve told this team many times that I don’t care who’s out there—I believe in them,” Blue Devil head coach Jolene Nagel said. “We still have time to get better here and be the best team we can be this year, and I’m excited.”
The Cardinals (8-16, 3-11 in the ACC) are the reigning ACC champions, but have struggled without some of their top players from last season. Duke exposed Louisville's inexperience for the second time this season, led by Meyer, who had six kills early in the contest to give the Blue Devils momentum with a 25-22 first-set win.
The sophomore then came up big again with her team trailing 14-11 in the second set, sparking a 6-1 run to put Duke back in front. With the second frame knotted at 24-24, Meyer came up with another clutch kill, then teamed with Amos for a block to put the Blue Devils (18-6, 12-2) up 2-0 overall in the match.
There was little drama in the final set, as Duke jumped out to an 11-5 lead and punctuated the victory with an Amos kill. Entering the contest, Nagel did not want her young team overlooking the struggling Cardinals, and the Blue Devils responded well to save their legs heading into Sunday's contest against Notre Dame (19-7, 10-4).
“In the ACC, number one can be beaten by number 15 any day and you need a team that understands that and a team that prepares like that,” Nagel said. “This team, with the seniors leading them, is doing a good job of stepping up to the plate and giving it their best shot. They do not take anyone lightly.”
Duke was razor-sharp Sunday, playing arguably its best match of the year thanks to a dominant start. The Blue Devils hit a red-hot .455 in the opening frame led by five kills apiece from Meyer and Tucker, cruising to a 25-18 set win.
The Blue Devils lost two close sets to start their first matchup with the Fighting Irish, but made sure there would be no doubt about the first two Sunday when they raced out to a 14-7 lead in the second set en route to a 10-point frame victory.
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Duke was shaky in the third set with a chance to secure the sweep, though.
After keeping their attack errors down all weekend, the Blue Devils committed 11, blowing a 21-17 lead in the third set to allow Notre Dame to extend the match even though no Fighting Irish player reached double-digit kills Sunday.
“The message in the huddle after the third set was very mixed. A lot of us definitely got ticked off,” senior defensive specialist Sasha Karelov said. “That was good because a lot of times we’re a team that doesn’t like to step on people’s toes, but when we do get competitive and intense, we do great things.”
Karelov notched her 13th 20-dig game of the year as the Duke defense continued sparking the team. The Blue Devils fell behind 6-4 in the fourth set, then erupted for an 11-3 run that resulted in an emphatic 25-11 set win.
Sunday got better for Duke when No. 12 North Carolina beat No. 10 Florida State and Pittsburgh beat Georgia Tech, as the losses for the Seminoles and Yellow Jackets gave the Blue Devils sole possession of second place in the ACC behind the Tar Heels.
Duke will have to earn its spot in the NCAA tournament in the next three weeks, though—the Blue Devils travel to take on Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh on the road this week and still have games against the Tar Heels and Seminoles left on their schedule. Pittsburgh is an RPI top-50 team, and North Carolina and Florida State are in the top 25, meaning Duke could prove it belongs in the NCAA tournament if it keeps winning.
“Winning these games felt absolutely amazing. We progressed as a team. we matured. The team that played today would not have done this three weeks ago," Amos said. "This was honestly the best feeling in the world.'