Pittsburgh came into Durham looking to move within six games of its first undefeated regular season in program history. Duke, however, had other ideas.
The Blue Devils defeated the fifth-ranked Panthers 3-1 (18-25, 26-24, 25-23, 25-22) Sunday afternoon at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Pittsburgh outhit Duke .361 to .242 in the first set, but an ability to play in the moment allowed the Blue Devils to squeeze by three close wins en route to one of the season’s biggest upsets.
“This team in the last two weeks has been doing a good job of focusing on the task at hand...playing one point at a time,” Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. “We are thinking about the right things when we are in the middle of the match.”
The Blue Devils (13-8, 7-5 in the ACC) came into the matchup riding a three-game winning streak, though an upset over the Panthers (23-1, 11-1 in the ACC) still appeared to be a near-impossible dream. In its three previous matches against ranked opponents, Duke had managed to win only one total set. And in the first set against Pittsburgh, it did not seem like this match would be any different.
The Panthers jumped out to an early 8-2 lead anchored by three kills from junior Layne Van Buskirk. The Blue Devils closed the gap to 15-13 behind five Pittsburgh attack errors, but a quick 5-2 run gave the Panthers another commanding edge at 20-15. Duke promptly called a timeout to try to put an end to its opponent’s surging momentum, but to no avail; Pittsburgh came out of the short intermission and quickly finished off the Blue Devils with a 5-3 run to take the set 25-18.
The first-half of the second set stayed close, with Duke holding a slim 12-11 edge. But the Blue Devils then won six out of the next seven points to bolt out to an assertive 18-12 advantage. Slowly, however, the Panthers came back, with a Van Buskirk kill giving Pittsburgh its first lead of the set at 22-21. But the crowd at Cameron—one of the loudest on the year—was not ready for Duke to give in, and that jolt of energy was just what the Blue Devils needed.
“It is always helpful to have energy supporting you,” redshirt junior Leah Meyer said. “It really fueled us and helped us when we were down a little bit and just gave us that little extra push to get back to do what we have to do.”
A few points later, a spike from graduate student Andie Shelton appeared to go out of bounds, giving Pittsburgh the set and a 2-0 match lead. But the call on the court was quickly changed, making the score 24-24 and giving Duke an opportunity to fight back. The team did just that, taking the next two points to win the set 26-24.
The third set was a test of which team wanted it more. After a Shelton ball-handling error gave Pittsburgh an 11-10 edge, the Panthers and Blue Devils then proceeded to trade the next 20 points. Neither unit was able to score consecutively until, finally, Duke reeled off three straight points to take a 23-21 lead. Four points later, a kill from junior Samantha Amos won the set for the Blue Devils.
“I think our team did a great job today of setting up the block and [we] made some pretty spectacular digs,” Nagel said. “We were fortunate enough to make some of those good plays at that critical time in order to score enough points to finish that [third] set.”
At this point, the intro to Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” began blasting from the Cameron loudspeaker, pumping up the crowd with Duke needing to win only one of the two remaining sets to complete the improbable upset. The Blue Devils would do it in one, taking the fourth set 25-22. The match ended on an electric kill from sophomore Payton Schwantz, who was promptly swarmed by her teammates.
“I was just screaming at the top of my lungs,” Meyer said of her mindset during that final point. “There is not much you can think about. Payton bounced the ball and it was just immediately like I just wanted to hug all my teammates. It was an incredible feeling.”
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Schwantz led Duke with 17 kills and came within one dig of a double-double. Meanwhile, Meyer led the team with nine total blocks including one that gave her 400 for her career, just the 10th Blue Devil to achieve that feat.
Next, Duke heads to Chapel Hill in its first matchup with Tobacco Road rival North Carolina. The Blue Devils hope to use the momentum from this victory to boost them through the latter part of the season.
“I think it gives us a lot of confidence,” Meyer said. “I mean as a team we do have a lot of confidence, but I think getting a win against a No. 5, undefeated team is always going to help you out.”