CHAPEL HILL—Coming off a brutal senior night loss to then-No. 2 Pitt, the Blue Devils were looking to wash away the bitter taste of defeat with a revenge victory against Tobacco Road rival North Carolina.
Instead, Duke found itself in the same dregs as before, stumbling through the end of an already wayward season.
The Blue Devils fell 3-0 (26-24, 25-20, 25-20) to the Tar Heels Thursday night at Carmichael Arena. Although Duke battled to the end, limited offensive production and a weak net presence ultimately doomed the Blue Devils against North Carolina's relentless attackers.
"We needed more competitiveness throughout the sets," Duke head coach Jolene Nagel said. "We had them 1-6 in the first set and let them back in. We were down in the second set and we came back, so that was good. We have the ability to do it, we just aren't doing it for the duration."
The first set was an exercise in control for the Blue Devils, where Duke was forced to match smart playmaking to North Carolina's relentless firepower from its talented outside hitters.
Although Duke (12-17, 5-11 in the ACC) found itself with an early 6-1 lead thanks to a litany of attack errors from the Tar Heels, slowly but surely the Blue Devils lead whittled away as North Carolina began to heat up. When the Tar Heels appeared to finally have momentum behind them with a 17-15 lead down the stretch, Duke had the opportunity to flip the script off a lengthy rally just out of a timeout. Over and over, North Carolina's hitters shot rockets right through Duke's blockers, only for timely saves from Payton Schwantz and Mackenzie Cole to keep the Blue Devils above water. The Blue Devils responded in turn with bombs of their own courtesy of Schwantz and Lily Cooper, but it was Duke's patience that would win out instead. As North Carolina's Lauren Harrison skied for a signature spike, the shot went wide for a Duke score.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Duke couldn't rely on North Carolina errors to win out the set. Although Duke clawed back from a 22-24 deficit to knot the frame at 24-24, Tar Heel Skyy Howard notched her sixth kill of the night with a gorgeous reversal on a Cooper block to put the set away.
North Carolina (15-11, 12-4) kept the ball rolling through the second set, easily earning a massive 13-6 lead by applying constant pressure to the Blue Devils. Harrison and Howard continue to drive the Tar Heels' offense, countering Duke's errant attacks with clutch saves from Mia Fradenburg and following them up with monster hits of their own. Although Duke mounted a furious comeback to put North Carolina's lead within reach at 17-16, the Tar Heels responded in turn with four straight points to leave the Blue Devils in the dust to take the set 25-20.
"We really watched a lot of video to scout, and our plan was good when we implemented it," Nagel said. "I don't know if we always recognized the different hitters that entered the game so we could make the adjustment fast enough, so I think our team needs to be more heads up in order to make those switches.... We need to be better in thinking one step ahead and not let one point go by before we make the adjustment."
Leaning on a final stand in the third set, Duke shook off yet another slow start to keep the match alive, but ultimately it was the Tar Heels who managed to will through the intense back and forth.
North Carolina lead by a hair for much of the start of the set, staving off Duke runs but never finding the power to put the Blue Devils away. Duke mounted a run of its own, opting to set up attacks right down the middle to disrupt the Tar Heels' lethal middle blockers. However, the Blue Devils' momentum wouldn't last, with Duke losing grip on its 14-12 lead to fall behind 22-17, largely due to whiffed looks.
Duke will close out the rest of its season on the road, taking on Florida State Nov. 24 and ending its season against Notre Dame Nov. 29.
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"I want to see [the team] work hard in the gym, but I also want to see them compete harder, and sustain that level," Nagel said. "We know we can play at that level; we just need it to be there the whole time instead of having it come in waves."