Entering their first NCAA tournament since 2014, Duke's seniors were tasked with Loyola Marymount in the first postseason appearance of their careers.
The Blue Devils were swept 3-0 by the Lions Friday evening at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion in Palo Alto, Calif. Despite pulling a Boeheim to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons, Duke could not find the strength to take down Loyola Marymount, struggling to slow down the Lions' fast pace.
“Certainly, I think Loyola Marymount did a great job serving the ball tonight and really did a good job of putting pressure on with that serve so we it was difficult for us to get anything going offensively as much as we would have liked to,” said head coach Jolene Nagel. “So that’s the initial thing so we didn’t handle that as much we had hoped to or would have liked to.”
After an offensive slurry in the second half of the opening frame, the Lions stole the first set 25-16. Sara Kovac commandeered the opposition's offensive firepower, smashing down seven kills on nine attempts with zero errors. Kovac dominated off of the quick set and her high-octane arm and put down a game high 22 kills Friday. Loyola Marymount hit .443 as a team in the first set and led in kills, digs, and blocks. Duke, by contrast, hit only 0.143.
The Lions proved to be a formidable opponent for the Blue Devils and have played well as their season winds to a close. To finish the regular season, Loyola Marymount knocked off then-No. 1 Brigham Young in straight sets. The Lions’ win handed the Cougars their only loss of the season. Even Stanford, the top-overall seed of this year’s NCAA tournament, was not able to knock off Brigham Young.
Despite Loyola Marymount leading for most of the match, the Blue Devils kickstarted a run midway through the second frame. Freshman Ade Owokoniran caught fire in the second and consistently found open space on the Lions’ side of the court. Owokoniran smashed down a team-high 11 kills in the contest.
Leah Meyer’s ace gave Duke a much-needed boost of momentum in the second set to tie things up at 22-22. Unfortunately, the Blue Devils surrendered a free point to the Lions on a service error before Ella Boehle’s ace forced set point. Nagel called a timeout, looking to regroup, but Kovac’s confident block put away the second frame for Loyola Marymount 25-22.
Duke entered the third set looking for answers. Around the 15-point mark, the Lions drifted away from the Blue Devils. Despite a late defensive surge that included several thunderous blocks, Duke couldn’t answer Loyola Marymount's sharpness and aggression.
Fridays loss was an unfortunate way to go out for the Blue Devils who have battled through an up and down season.
“I’m really really proud of this group. They’ve worked extremely hard and battled through some big challenges along the way to get here,” said Nagel. “I wish they would have pushed through a little bit more tonight because they’re a tenacious group and they have been doing that. But at the same time, Loyola Marymount did a a good job of taking us out of our game.”
This year’s team—a mix of young players, senior leaders and a star graduate transfer—had their moments at times this season. Unfortunately, the Blue Devils could not find their groove and fit the pieces together in their West Coast appearance.
“I’m just proud that this team came together and played as well as they did,” coach Nagel explained. “I’m just really excited for them [seniors] to have opportunity to be here at the NCAA tournament. They’ve worked really hard. They’re committed. They did a great job for us tonight. Couldn’t be more proud of them and couldn’t be more grateful to them.”
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