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Duke volleyball responds after dropping opening set to beat North Carolina for the first time since 2017

Gracie Johnson (7) blocks a hit in Duke's win against North Carolina.
Gracie Johnson (7) blocks a hit in Duke's win against North Carolina.

Tip the scale one way, it tips back. 

This is exactly what happened inside Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday night as the Blue Devils attempted to take down their most infamous rival in North Carolina. Faced with odd defensive communication issues, service errors and overturned calls, Duke certainly faced adversity when it came to getting a win. In the end, It was able to tip the scale fully in its direction as it got its first win, 3-1, against the Tar Heels since November 2017. 

“It’s always a great match with UNC and we knew it would be a fight and it always is,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. 

The two teams came into the matchup fairly even, as both teams held 4-6 conference records, with Duke (14-8, 5-6 in the ACC) holding a slightly better overall record at 13-8 compared to North Carolina’s 10-9. With their win tonight, the Blue Devils broke their five-match losing streak against the Tar Heels (10-10, 4-7) and slimmed North Carolina’s all-time advantage to 68-56.  

Despite getting the first point of the match, the first set did not look bright for Duke as it failed to establish a steady offensive rhythm and made uncharacteristic defensive errors. The Blue Devils struggled with defensive communication as they recorded eight errors just in the first set before dropping it 25-20. 

“We had a lot of uncharacteristic errors at the end of that first set and going into the second set,” Nagel said. “But I thought we got better at that and settled into the match. It’s certainly something we’ll focus in on and try to make sure that we tighten up on those defensive errors going into Friday.” 

Going into the second set, the already high tensions at Cameron Indoor continued to rise as Duke needed to establish itself in the matchup soon or risk being down 2-0. The second set included 15 ties with Duke only being able to establish a lead after sophomore Christina Barrow’s dig from the floor provided graduate student Gracie Johnson with the assist required for her kill, giving the Blue Devils a 17-15 lead. Johnson, an all-around player, recorded 16 kills which helped Duke to hit .318 overall. 

The key dig from Barrow, at the end of an extended scrappy point, proved the turning point of the match as Duke did not trail by more than a point for the rest of the second set. After an overturned point for touch gave the Tar Heels a 21-20 lead, Duke was able to come back to tie the set at 22 before a key block by Lizzie Fleming and Johnson gave Duke a one-point advantage of 23-22. 

Immediately after the point, the North Carolina bench called a timeout, at which point the scoreboard was glowing 23-22, with the Tar Heels up by a point instead of the Blue Devils. 

“We felt so strongly that the score was incorrect that we just had to do what we could to set it straight,” Nagel said. “That was a huge point for us to get that set.” 

As the set was about to be decided by the first team to reach 25 points, this oversight could prove extremely influential in who had the momentum coming out of the set. 

While the referees did eventually correct the error and award the point to Duke, it was not without hassle — it took a 10-minute delay in which the referees reviewed the camera footage. 

“I was gonna be a little hot if the point didn’t go our way,” Johnson said. “It’s just acting that next-point mentality and locking in on that play.”

While Duke didn’t let the delay get to it, eventually capturing the second set 25-23, it did have the potential to interrupt its momentum so close to the magic number 25. 

This wasn’t the only adversity from referring that the Blue Devils faced all night as there were points overturned both for and against Duke — whether it be for double touches, touches or net interference. Oftentimes these calls would occur during high-tension and tied moments, after the teams had already begun to celebrate the point.  

“You can’t control the refs,” Johnson said. “You can’t control the environment, but we can control what’s happening on our team.”

The win was a team effort as graduate student Emma Worthington proved her worth as she recorded 43 assists. Defensively it was a career performance for fellow graduate student Jess Robinson as she tied her career-high 10 blocks in addition to surpassing 400 total blocks in her collegiate career — 323 of which came during her time at Michigan. 

The crowd was out in full force Wednesday night, with notables such as men’s basketball head coach Jon Scheyer and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in attendance. The crowd was not all Duke fans though, as many vocal Tar Heels also made the journey. 

“It definitely adds an extra layer of emotion,” Johnson said. “You can use it but also have to take it away at some point to act as if it’s business as usual. The fans in Cameron really helped. We wouldn’t have won the second and third sets if we hadn’t had the momentum on our side and the fans cheering us on.” 

The Blue Devils will need to carry the energy from Cameron into enemy territory as the Tar Heels get a chance at redemption a month from now Nov. 24 in Chapel Hill. While the teams came into this matchup in fairly even positions, they both have important ACC teams looming before they end their seasons together. 

"We're at this crucial part of our season where you’ve really got to make sure we’re focusing on the right things and that each match and each point within that match helps us to play to the best of our capabilities and get us where we want to go,” Nagel said. 


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