When Duke head coach Jolene Nagel entered the 2019 season, she knew she would have a jigsaw puzzle of explosive newcomers and veteran role players to put together to get the Blue Devils rolling.
And although all of the pieces didn't quite seem to fit at the start of Duke's home opener—and some seemed missing altogether—the Blue Devils pushed through a rough start to showcase their most complete offensive performances of the young season.
Duke took down Charlotte 3-0 (29-27, 25-17, 25-17) Tuesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium for its first win of the 2019 season. Although numerous hitting errors plagued the Blue Devils through their first set, key contributions from sophomores Ade Owokoniran and Lily Cooper kept Duke in the driver's seat all evening.
"I'm pleased that our team hung in there in that first set, even though we had a lot of errors," Blue Devil head coach Jolene Nagel said. "That was actually a goal of ours going in, that we wanted to limit our hitting errors, and we didn't do a great job in that first set. Our team hung in there and played defense and served pretty well and passed the ball well so we could survive in that first set. By [the end], we were in rhythm and we were able to find where we could score."
Despite ending the evening with a pair of convincing sets, the Blue Devils (1-2) were anything but in control through the first frame.
Posting an abysmal 14 attacking errors to the 49ers' three, Duke gave the visiting team free reign over the net as the Blue Devils' outside hitters were repeatedly smothered. After holding a 12-11 lead, Duke watched its advantage disappear as Payton Schwantz—traditionally the Blue Devils' go-to scorer—found even her most vicious spikes flying back at her courtesy of Charlotte's tenacious blockers.
Although the Blue Devils were able to keep the 49ers (3-1) from running away down the stretch—thanks in large part to Duke slotting in Owokoniran as a human spark plug—Charlotte's Tyra Galloway and Amani McArthur continued to give the Blue Devils headaches at the net. In the first set alone, the 49ers out-blocked Duke 8-2, daring the Blue Devils' explosive hitters to try to break through Charlotte's bulletproof net defense.
Luckily for Duke, the Blue Devils' aggressive attack pulled through, giving Duke the first set point as well as seemingly the momentum for the rest of the evening.
"It was limiting errors," Owokoniran said about turning around the Blue Devils' troubled first set. "Our last match was against Stanford, which is a top-tier team. It's a little hard to play against teams that are not top tier and keep that consistency level. We need to play our own game, be consistent, and be true to ourselves."
Coming into the second frame, the Blue Devils' young core of middle blockers looked like a completely new unit. Although Cooper held the fort down with a solid .357 hitting percentage and seven kills, freshman Lizzie Fleming looked like she had the yips through the first set, putting up just two kills and two errors on nine attempts. However, as the San Francisco native found her groove, the young Blue Devil proved why she is one of the most explosive attackers on Duke's roster.
After Owokoniran launched a missile through the 49er blockers to start the Blue Devils' decisive run, Duke's defense clamped down to force Charlotte into major misplays, with Fleming earning five more kills through the final two sets. Fittingly, the freshman middle blocker was the one to put the exclamation mark on set two, smoking the 49ers libero with a massive spike to put the frame away.
"Lizzie and Lily—the Leles as we call them—are so amazing at what they do and they're getting better every day," Owokoniran said. "I'm really proud of them and the whole team as well."
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The final set was more of the same, as the Blue Devils took their earlier momentum and ran with it, committing just three errors and never leaving the set in question.
Duke will look to build on these victories with three non-conference opponents rounding out this weekend's Duke Invitational. The Blue Devils' emphatic win against Charlotte proved that Duke has the pieces of a lethal offense, but the question is whether the Blue Devils will make the pieces fit and avoid a jumbled mess.