Duke started off hot, but the fire started to fade as the night went on.
Thursday night, Cameron Indoor Stadium welcomed North Carolina and a hoard of fans from both teams for this year’s installment of the rivalry match. The Blue Devils started off strong with a dominant first set, but the young team couldn’t keep up for long and dropped the next three sets, ultimately losing 3-1 (22-25, 26-24, 25-18, 25-20).
“Obviously we’re disappointed because we wanted to come out on top, and I think our team is working hard and they’re getting better all the time,” said Duke head coach Jolene Nagel. “I think we got to stay together as a team and just keep working hard everyday, because we have five more matches left and if we can continue to get better, that’s going to be a very wonderful thing.”
This season has been a mixed bag for Duke (11-15, 4-9 in the ACC), but tonight, it came ready to play. Right out of the gate, the Blue Devils were aggressive and lethal on the net, following the lead of sophomore middle blocker Ade Owokoniran, who totaled five kills in the first set. Both teams responded to each other’s forceful blocking, leading to a sequence of jaw-dropping rallies. This was Duke at its peak, and it was no surprise that it won the first set, leaving the court on a high note.
Perhaps too high.
“I think it's a natural human instinct to let your guard down a little bit, even though you fight it," Nagel said. "We talked about it before that second set started and I think that’s where as a team we have to mature enough to realize that you have to go even harder that next set because the other team’s coming back hard at you.”
North Carolina (12-11, 9-4) came alive in the second set and made Duke fight for every last point. To the same effect, the Blue Devils let off the gas and miscommunication started to plague the backcourt. At one point, outside hitter Payton Schwantz went barreling toward the baseline to save a ball, which she succeeded in, only to see it fall to the ground in front of four confused teammates.
After some strategic timeouts from Nagel, Duke got back in the game and went point-for-point with the Tar Heels, sticking right with them from 19-19 to 24-24 in the second set. This miraculous turnaround showed the grit and determination of this Duke team as they clawed their way back from a sloppy start to the set. Though it ended with a Duke loss, the energy and resilience they displayed in this run was unlike anything the program has seen this year.
“That’s what the 8 a.m. practices are for,” said Blue Devil senior Samantha Amos. “That’s what we live for. Those close games, the Duke-UNC 20-20, 21-20. Those are what we live for. Honestly, I think that’s the most fired up our team was in the game, win or lose. That was the most fire I’ve seen in our players.”
Duke is playing with fire this season, in that they can’t seem to control or predict when the flames will rise to a dangerous level. The Blue Devils' performance has been erratic from game to game and they’ve struggled to stay with their more skilled opponents. However, if they can harness the intensity that they show in spurts throughout every game, the fire may be able to grow into a formidable ACC threat.
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