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Duke volleyball rallies in 5 sets against N.C. State, sweeps Tobacco Road slate

Lizzie Fleming prepares to spike the ball in Duke's win against N.C. State.
Lizzie Fleming prepares to spike the ball in Duke's win against N.C. State.

Duke wasn’t spooked this holiday weekend. In fact, its resilience was on prime display Friday as the Durham team took down its second Tobacco Road opponent in three days, defeating N. C. State in five sets.

The Blue Devils and Wolfpack met at 6:30 p.m. Friday, with the home squad emerging with the win. Duke started a winning streak: it beat N.C. three sets to one in Cameron Indoor Stadium last year. The Blue Devils were coming in on a winning streak, their last victory being an emotional 3-1 performance against North Carolina Wednesday, and were hoping to keep the good times rolling Friday. However, they weren’t the only team with momentum, as N. C. State took down Virginia in a dominant 3-0 victory Sunday, but the time off got to it against Duke. The victory was earned for the Blue Devils, as they fought through multiple close sets — late.

As the game moved into its later stages, with the final three sets being won by a combined nine points, Duke knew it had to be mentally focused.

“I think our team hung in there tonight against a good N.C. State team and kept it close, when maybe we weren’t playing the absolute best, but I just think that gave us an opportunity to be able to finish and win,” said head coach Jolene Nagel after the match.

The first two sets set the tone for a close matchup between the Tobacco Road teams. In the first set, Duke (15-8, 6-6 in the ACC) led a majority of the time, but the action remained tight. After a back-and-forth beginning of the set, the two teams were neck-and-neck with 17 points each, until the Blue Devils pulled ahead, eventually winning it 25-18 on a powerful strike from Gracie Johnson past two Wolfpack blockers. 

To start off the second set, the Blue Devils played smart. Six of their first 10 points came from discipline at the net — they let N. C. State’s attacks fly over their heads and out of bounds. The missed attacks were a theme for the game, as the Wolfpack (16-6, 6-5) made 33 attacking errors, the second-highest total against Duke this season. 

Nagel described this number as a result of “good blocking and the team recognizing misses and not trying to make a play.” For the rest of the set, the teams played close until the scoreboard displayed a 20-20 tie. From there, it was all Wolfpack, as the Raleigh side went on a 5-0 tear to finish off the set. 

The final three sets shared a few themes: close calls, official reviews and an unfazed Duke team. Throughout the third set, the two sides traded long rallies and emphatic kills, and it reached a crescendo as the Blue Devils took a 21-18 lead as Fleming and Kerry Keefe combined on a block. After an N. C. State timeout, Rachel Richardson sent another attempted kill the other way with a crucial block. Despite Duke taking the momentum, the Wolfpack took three points in a row to force Nagel to take a timeout while holding on to a 22-21 lead. 

Evidently, the timeout calmed the Blue Devils down, as they appeared to win the set 25-21. But not so fast — the officials took a closer look at the play, and determined the Duke blockers touched what appeared to be a missed spike. After the score was adjusted, the N. C. State bench and supporters erupted with the energy only a second chance can provide. However, it didn’t faze Jess Robinson. She met an attack at the net, and sent the ball back to N. C. State’s side of the court for a 25-22 Duke set victory.

Clearly, Robinson set the tone for her team. The fourth set began with a block party for the Blue Devils, as they notched two rejections for scores in their first eight points. Additionally, Johnson and Keefe tallied aces for Duke, as the home team took an 8-5 lead, with Keefe’s ace prompting an N. C. State timeout. Following the timeout, the Wolfpack scored a lot, but not all in a positive way. They tallied five errors and six kills, and Duke killed a few to take a 15-12 lead. 

N. C. State fought back to hold a 20-18 advantage, but Duke rallied to tie the score at 20-20. The Wolfpack went on a 4-1 run to put the Blue Devils on the brink of defeat, but Duke let a close serve fall just wide of the boundary line to bring the game within striking distance and regain the serve. But once again, a review on game point went in favor of N. C. State, as the officials deemed the ball did land inbounds, sealing a set victory for the away team.

The momentum was squarely in the hands of the Wolfpack after the set-ending call, but Duke’s mental resilience training paid off. Specifically, the appearance of a special guest in practice this week. 

“We had the privilege of Coach K coming into practice last week,” Fleming said. “He put a big emphasis on the ‘next point, next play’ mindset.”

That mindset propelled Duke to an early 2-0 advantage with a pair of kills from Richardson and Keefe, both assisted by Emma Worthington. After the Blue Devils’ hot start, the two teams went on runs, with the score eventually equalizing at 7-7. They battled out another set, with a score for N. C. State that initially was called to be a missed kill and point for the Blue Devils, but after a conference, the officials awarded the point to the Wolfpack. After further consideration, though, they double-checked their decision at the monitor, and re-awarded the point to Duke. 

The teams traded points until the scoreline read 12-12, when the Wolfpack called a timeout. Keefe scored a critical ace, prompting another N. C. State timeout. Then, another ace — her fourth of the game and a season high. With the score 14-13, Johnson found Richardson on the outside, who sent the ball past the Wolfpack blockers for the win. 

“I'm pretty excited for our team, really proud of them for mentally being so strong up there and having some courage to make some big plays and take some big swings,” Nagel said.

The Blue Devils will have a week off before their next game, another Friday night matchup against Wake Forest.


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