Some of the greatest games in sports are the ones that run down to the wire with the promise of a comeback on the horizon. With both teams duking it out, it takes a special level of grit to ultimately come out victorious. Unfortunately for Duke, its fighting spirit was not enough to notch another tally in the win column.
The Blue Devils fell in a four-set heartbreaker (23-25, 25-18, 20-25, 19-25) to rival North Carolina Sunday at Cameron Indoor Stadium, marking their fourth-straight loss to the Tar Heels.
“I think we’re disappointed,” said head coach Jolene Nagel. “I don’t think we executed as well as we could have in our serve-receives, and that has a lot to do with what our offense can do.”
From the opening whistle, it seemed that North Carolina was one step ahead. Starting the match on a 4-0 run, the Tar Heels (13-8, 5-5 in the ACC) displayed their offensive firepower with sophomore Mabrey Shaffmaster and graduate student Charley Niego each notching four first-set kills. However, as Duke (12-9, 3-7) played its way into the game, it started to put up a fight. Sophomore outside hitter Rachel Richardson sparked the Duke offense as she ripped the ball toward North Carolina’s libero freshman Maddy May, who could not handle the heat. From there, four key kills from Blue Devil star Gracie Johnson as well as blocks at the net pulled Duke back into the game. However, the Tar Heels never gave up, putting the set away on a kill from Niego after five straight Duke points.
The rest of the game followed a similar storyline: Duke was on the cusp of greatness, but North Carolina was ready to deal the final blow. The third and fourth sets saw Tar Heel dominance, even as the Blue Devils attempted to catch up. Shaffmaster brought her kill total to 18, while Niego and junior Kaya Merkler each earned 10 kills. The true hero for North Carolina, however, was freshman Liv Mogridge, whose dominance as the middle hitter caused issues for Duke all game long as she notched nine kills to close the match.
While the Tar Heels came to dominate three out of four sets on the day, the Blue Devils shined in the second. Duke had four instances of 3-0 scoring runs in which it seemed to pull itself together. Johnson, who had 16 kills on the day, led the team with her stellar shot selection, slamming the ball down to the middle of the court past the outstretched hands of North Carolina’s blockers before hitting a rocket to the back right corner. Sophomore Rylie Kadel also came alive in the second set, firing several shots that deflected off the outstretched hands of the Tar Heels for three of her nine kills.
“We probably played better than we were feeling out on the court, to be honest with you,” said Nagel. “I can see that in our serving. That was not terrible. We got some more points and blocked more balls than they did.”
Alas, the Blue Devils could never really control the game due to what looked to be emotions and frustrations out on the court. The team seemed to let the moment get the best of them, especially in the final two sets. With North Carolina keeping its composure, the cooler heads prevailed while Duke struggled to recover from disappointments.
“We didn’t manage the match well, just emotionally we got frustrated,” said Nagel. “I think we kind of let it snowball a bit. We’ve got to do a better job of managing that and difficult situations.”
With No. 2 Louisville next up for the Blue Devils, mental preparation is their best chance at success.
“We need to really prepare and be at our best, and I think one thing is to understand what went wrong today with the mental part of our game,” said Nagel.
Duke travels to face the Cardinals Friday before making its way to South Bend, Ind., Sunday in an ACC matchup against Notre Dame.
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