It was a question of would they or won’t they Sunday afternoon for Duke.
Following a brutal straight-set loss to No. 8 Pittsburgh Friday evening, the question in the air was whether the Blue Devils would be able to bounce back to take down another ACC opponent Sunday. They could, rebounding to defeat Virginia 3-0. Graduate student Lizzie Fleming led the defensive effort Sunday as she collected her 400th career block.
The Blue Devils went into the matchup against Pittsburgh with tentative optimism as they came in on the heels of a nine-game win streak, including a victory against No. 18 Creighton and having only dropped one set since Sept. 2. However, even with 24 ties and 12 lead changes overall, the Blue Devils succumbed to the Panthers’ high-powered offense as they were outhit 48-39 in kills. Duke only recorded a .190 hitting percentage against Pittsburgh compared to .480 against Santa Clara the weekend prior.
“I felt like we served pretty well,” said head coach Jolene Nagel about the team's performance Friday. “We needed to control our first touch a little bit better, to be able to open up our offense a little bit more against them. I think we did a lot of good things out there.”
Dropping the first set 25-20, the Blue Devils (10-3, 1-1 in the ACC) fought their way back in the second set as they forced 18 ties. With the set tied 28-28, Duke was gifted a Pittsburgh service error in the form of an out serve. In a set played to 25 and won by two points, the 29-28 Duke lead would have been crucial. However, after a Panther challenge the call was overturned to make it an ace, instead giving Pittsburgh (11-2, 2-0) the 29-28 lead and eventually a 30-28 win.
“That was disappointing for sure, but you just can’t get caught up in those kinds of calls. You just got to move on from that point,” Nagel said. “That was definitely a big call though. If we could have gotten that second set, it would have helped us tremendously.”
The call proved impactful not only on the scoreboard but in momentum for the Blue Devils as after the close second set, Pittsburgh held the Blue Devils to only one tie in the third set and never allowed Duke to establish a lead, leading to the straight-set win.
Despite the loss to the Panthers and the end of their winning streak, the Blue Devils came out firing Sunday afternoon as they hit a .522 hitting percentage in the first set against the Cavaliers (7-5, 0-2). Duke made up for past serve inconsistency today as they had five aces to match their five service errors.
“We came out with a really fiery mentality. We knew we could do it,” said sophomore Kerry Keefe after the win against Virginia. “We talk about resilience a lot as a team. I’m glad we showed up and actually did it.”
Keefe, an outside hitter, was one of three Blue Devils Sunday afternoon to have 10 or more kills — joined by Gracie Johnson with 12 and Fleming with 10.
Everything was not flowing perfectly smoothly for the Blue Devils Sunday, despite their quick win. After establishing a one-set lead, both teams struggled to gain space in the second set with Duke only winning 25-21. Throughout the matchup, the Blue Devils suffered from more dropped balls and moments of miscommunication than is typical of the team so far.
“It’s not that typical, but we will have to talk about it and see how that happened because we haven’t necessarily been having those issues. We’ll have to follow up on that,” Nagel said.
The Blue Devils will need to work out any communication issues they may have as fast as their schedule does not slow down, facing both Miami and Florida State next week. In a competitive ACC environment, the Blue Devils will have to take every team seriously as they venture further into conference play.
“Hopefully we can catch our breath and everything and really start breaking this weekend down. It’s a long trip, and they’re both very good teams,” Nagel said. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
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