Duke lost the fifth set 15-13 in its Sunday match against Miami—certainly a textbook heartbreaker. But it found another hard-to-stomach end to its regular season Wednesday afternoon, this time against an even greater foe.
The Blue Devils fell in four sets against North Carolina (17-25, 25-19, 19-25, 17-25) in a back-and-forth contest led by two of the ACC’s best outside hitters.
“I think we needed to take care of the ball a little bit better today in order to have better opportunities,” head coach Jolene Nagel said after the game. “But I really liked our effort that we gave, and we did some great things, too. But I think they served better than we did, and we needed to handle their serve a little bit better than we did.”
Senior outside hitter Gracie Johnson entered the match second in the ACC in kills per set with 4.34, and North Carolina’s Mabrey Shaffmaster was right behind her, sitting at third with 3.96. It was ultimately Johnson that stole the show at the net with 24 kills—her fifth match in a row and 13th of the season with 20 or more kills—while Shaffmaster had 11.
Johnson was a powerful presence from both at the net and in the back row for Duke (16-13, 7-11 in the ACC), putting the Blue Devils up 15-9 in the second set by forcing a Tar Heel defender to protect her face from an incoming swing. Her most effective finishes were cross-court swings, forcing a timeout on the following play after finding the sideline off a pancake save from graduate setter Devon Chang. Though she had a slow start in swinging out twice from the back row, she quickly found her consistency and even grabbed four kills in a row as Duke went on a 7-0 run in the third set.
“She just definitely has been offensively just huge for us this year,” Nagel said of Johnson, “and a leader not only in her offense, but also just being on the court all the time. … She’s come in, and she has worked diligently since day one to be the best she can be and to continue to develop as an athlete, and it’s just so much fun to see her lighting it up out there on the court and being so dominant like she has been this year, because she certainly worked very hard for it.”
Shaffmaster’s main threat on offense was her court vision, at times pulling back on power and instead catching Duke’s defense on its heels by placing the ball in holes in the court. After approaching at the antenna and aligning her shoulders to the line, leading Duke to shift in preparation for a hard line shot, Shaffmaster punched the ball across the court in front of the 10-foot-line, the ball hitting the floor as Duke’s players couldn’t reverse direction in time.
“I think her biggest challenge for us today was her serve. She has a really nice topspin jump serve,” Nagel said of Shaffmaster, who tallied five aces. “ … And she’s a physical, strong kid, but she’s also pretty crafty. Our defense needed to definitely not overcommit on her because she can move the ball around; she sees the court and can move the ball around so well.”
The Tar Heels (16-12, 8-9) had a strong blocking presence led by middle hitters Kaya Merkler and Skyy Howard, even keeping Johnson without a kill from 16-9 in the second set to 18-12 in the third set. But they were mainly able to limit Duke’s offense from behind the service line. With 11 aces, North Carolina's power from behind the line often forced the Blue Devils to send passes back over the net, which outside hitters like Parker Austin quickly slammed back to a stunned Duke defense, or to play out of system.
Duke handled out-of-system play well toward the beginning of the season, but struggled Wednesday in Chapel Hill. The Blue Devils sometimes opted to roll balls toward the middle of the court, which North Carolina eventually seemed to predict and picked up easily, and other times simply met the hands of the Tar Heel block that had time to locate Duke’s hitters due to high bump sets from scrappy passes.
Wednesday marked the 125th meeting between the two rival programs, with North Carolina leading 68-57 in the series and taking nine of the last 10 meetings. The result marked the 864th win for North Carolina head coach Joe Sagula, who has the third-most wins of active Division I coaches, behind only Mary Wise of Florida and Chris Poole of Florida State.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.