The Blue Devils knew that playing this match without injured explosive outside hitter Ade Owokoniran would be difficult, but their ruthless net presence proved to be much more difficult for UNC Greensboro to overcome.
Duke traveled to Greensboro, N.C., Tuesday night to face off against the momentum-filled Spartans, with the Blue Devils coming out on top in Fleming Gym, defeating the Spartans 3-0 (25-21, 25-16, 26-24). Though Duke received contributions across the board, Lily Cooper was the dominant force for the team, as she finished the game with a team-high nine blocks.
Head coach Jolene Nagel had nothing but praise for the sophomore middle blocker out of Wildwood, Mo.
“Lily [Cooper] has been able to play ever since she’s gotten to Duke,” Nagel said. “But she’s definitely becoming more of a force as a blocker and expanding her tool box in regards to her hitting and everything [else], too. So, she’s coming along nicely and we're just gonna keep working at it every day.”
UNC Greensboro’s outside hitters were a problem throughout the match for the Blue Devils, but the countless Spartan errors, combined with Cooper’s blocking, rendered its powerful offensive attack ineffective.
The error bug bit both teams early and quite often. The game started out with poor passes, and the third set began with several missed serves by both teams. Though Duke (5-2) was victorious in the end, UNC Greensboro nearly pushed the game to another set.
Heading into the game, the big question was who was going to fill in for Owokoniran’s lethal attacks from the outside. Freshman Gracie Johnson and senior Samantha Amos once again gave the Blue Devils their answer, as the two combined for 15 kills on the night.
Johnson started off red hot and cooled off as the sets progressed, but as she simmered down, Amos heated up to give Duke enough offense to secure another victory. Amos’ night was highlighted by a ferocious one-on-one block during the second set to allow the Blue Devils to pull ahead.
Despite a strong night for many Blue Devils, junior outside hitter Payton Schwantz struggled. She posted an uncharacteristic hitting percentage of -.059 on the night, with only four kills in 17 attempts in addition to two serve errors. Despite Schwantz’s mistake-filled night, there was a silver lining, as she delivered three critical points for her team in the middle of the second set to put her team up 14-11.
Although there were a few impressive individual performances, the game tonight required all hands on deck, with Nagel emptying her entire bench.
"It was important for us to get people opportunities out there," Nagel said. "[For everybody] to gain some experience and hopefully some confidence, I was really excited we were able to do that.”
Using the entire bench worked in Duke's favor tonight, as the Spartans (5-2) were held to a dreadful .098 team hitting percentage on the night.
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Among the reserves was Blue Devil freshman outside hitter Moorea Wood, who made her collegiate debut. Though she got off to a rocky start on a critical missed serve late in the third set, Wood contributed to UNC Greensboro’s awful hitting percentage, posting a respectable stat line of three blocks in her minimal playing time.
The unsung hero of the night was sophomore Mackenzie Cole. Although her stat line was not the most glorious one of the night, Cole provided an evident boost of energy to her team, frequently diving on the hardwood.
All the Blue Devils' fingers will be crossed in hopes for Ade Owokoniran to return by Friday ahead of the team's three-game weekend. In the meantime, Duke will continue to send out invitations to the Lily Cooper and friends' block party.