Despite late fourth-set lead, Duke volleyball drops clash to North Carolina ahead of Selection Sunday

Gracie Johnson stretches upward for the ball during Duke's win against Clemson.
Gracie Johnson stretches upward for the ball during Duke's win against Clemson.

In a make-or-break rivalry matchup, the visitors let the environment be a factor. 

In a heartbreaking end to its regular season, Duke, despite winning the first set and leading late in the second and fourth sets, fell to North Carolina in five sets Friday afternoon in Chapel Hill. With the loss, Duke now sits right on the bubble for selection into the NCAA tournament. 

“We’re just a little shocked right now because we just all wanted it so badly,” head coach Jolene Nagel said. 

With a 2-1 set lead and up 16-7 in the fourth set, it looked as if Duke (19-10, 10-8 in the ACC) would be able to get the sweep of the Tar Heels after its win in Durham last month. However, North Carolina (13-14, 7-11 in the ACC) left everything on the court, as it was able to force three Blue Devil match points— including a dig save off a Tar Heel’s ankle. Despite having a solid lead and the win within reach, a series of impressive saves and plays from North Carolina left the Duke players rattled as North Carolina forced a fifth set 28-26. 

It wasn’t the only time in the match that Duke had a solid lead and surrendered it either. After hitting .300 and winning the first set 25-22, the Blue Devils had a solid 19-13 lead in the second before North Carolina forced four Duke set points. The Blue Devils were held to a .089 hitting percentage in the second set as their opponents racked up an impressive eight blocks to take it 28-26, eliminating Duke’s lead. 

“In the second set, I think we made just a few too many errors,” Nagel said. “Our offense was stopped. They were keying in on some of our offense and getting some stops.” 

Unlike the second and fourth sets, the Blue Devils were never able to establish a lead in the fifth set. Only playing first to 15 as opposed to 25, every point was infinitely important. 

“This [group has] been really good about being mature and being efficient, but in the fifth set we certainly were not,” Nagel said of Duke's lack of offensive efficiency in the fifth set. 

With the rival crowd fired up from the intense end to the fourth set, Duke offense was nonexistent in the fifth, as the Blue Devils hit .000 for the set with North Carolina recording eight kills and seven blocks. 

“We let that big play for match point in the fourth set rattle us a bit,” Nagel said. “I don’t know if we completely let that go going into the fifth set to be ready to just focus on the next play.”

While this was not the end to their season the Blue Devils wanted or thought they would get halfway through the match, the experience of the older Duke players still shone through. Graduate students Gracie Johnson and Lizzie Fleming were prime examples, and carried Duke through the earlier sets Friday. Johnson recorded 17 kills with Fleming just behind at 13, hitting .464 with no errors. 

“This team has a lot of older players and played with maturity,” Nagel said. “The experience that we had out there on the court helped us get through some really tight situations this season.”

Despite the defeat, the Blue Devils still managed a winning record in the ACC at 10-8 and a 3-1 win against the Tar Heels back in October. Duke is not completely out of the race for the postseason, but with the loss its chances got slimmer. 

“We’re still hoping we might get that bid for the NCAA tournament,” Nagel said. “A lot of other things have to happen whereas we could have controlled our own destiny had we been able to get that match.” 

Duke will find out its postseason fate soon — on Selection Sunday (Nov. 26) at 6 p.m.


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