The Blue Devils' road to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014 has not been an easy one. In a season where Duke both beat No. 5 Pittsburgh but also lost to a struggling North Carolina squad at home, the Blue Devils have shown flashes of brilliance as well as flashes of uncertainty.
And to survive the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, Duke will need to be its best self.
The unseeded Blue Devils will travel to Palo Alto, Calif., to open their NCAA tournament run against Loyola Marymount Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Stanford's Maples Pavilion. If Duke can take down the Lions, it will likely face their toughest test of the season yet against the top-seeded Cardinal. The Blue Devils' best shot at a run will come down to their talented upperclassmen, who have remained solid through the thick of conference play.
"I'm so excited for the seniors because they haven't gotten to do this," Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said on her upperclassmen making it to the tournament for the first time in their careers. "Even our seniors last year were able to go as freshmen, but this class wasn't. They've worked hard for it during their careers and everyone's really excited."
In its opening match against Loyola Marymount, Duke will need to limit the Lions' talented outside hitters and exploit their weaker blockers up front.
Loyola Marymount's explosive offense is led by senior Sara Kovac, who averages 3.9 kills per set and has notched double-digit kills in her past eight matches, including 22 against then-No. 1 Brigham Young. Joined by junior outside hitters Savannah Slattery and Bo Culo, the Lions' vicious spikes will keep the Blue Devils' hands full all evening.
Coupled with a solid defensive presence from senior Kekai Whitford and junior Tess Reid, the Blue Devils' hitters will need to stay sharp to finish out long sets against such an explosive team.
"[Loyola Marymount] is always a good team," Nagel said. "We played them in 2017 and in 2016. They run a very fast offense. They're good volleyball players, they have good volleyball IQ, they're scrappy. We've got to figure out how to slow down their outside hitters and their pins."
However, Loyola Marymount is far from perfect, and Duke will need to exploit key weaknesses in the Lions' game up close to the net to come away with a win. Loyola Marymount sits at a .267 hitting percentage, a product of the Lions' aggression sometimes coming back to bite them with unforced errors. The Lions also average just 1.5 blocks per set, largely due to a younger core of middle blockers.
The Blue Devils will undoubtedly need to lean heavily on redshirt junior Leah Meyer, who has stepped up as Duke's go-to blocker. Her ability to stop key runs and wedge through tough defenses with her accurate hitting has earned her All-ACC honors and has largely been the difference maker in keeping the Blue Devils alive in tougher matches.
"[Leah] has really, in the last two-thirds of this season, has been great about showing up every night and bringing her game," Nagel said. "Its been both offensively and defensively, so that we can play defense around that in transition so we can score points. She's finally feeling better after not being able to play last year due to injury, and she's being consistent in her play and being a force for us."
Duke has found another reliable veteran presence in graduate transfer Andie Shelton as well. A combination outside hitter and setter, Shelton has been a reliable scorer and distributor, averaging 2.2 kills per set and 5.7 assists per set. With the help of outside hitters Payton Schwantz and Ade Owokoniran, the Blue Devils boast a solid offensive unit.
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Unfortunately for Duke, its run through the tournament will only get harder from there. Facing off against a Cardinal squad that only suffered one loss all season, the Blue Devils will be tested up and down their roster. With capable scorers at all positions and one of the strongest blocking cores in the nation, Duke will need a perfect offensive game to take hang with the national powerhouse.
"Stanford plays a little bit differently from LMU," Nagel said. "LMU, everything is just so fast. Stanford, they're bigger, so the game will be a little bit different. Right now the focus is try to make sure we've got our team prepared so we feel good about LMU, but then we'll switch gears and focus on Stanford."
Getting a bid to the NCAA tournament was the break the Blue Devils needed after struggling to make it to the postseason over the past few years. But for right now, Duke will need all hands on deck to make it past the first weekend.