Down 21-17 late in the third set, one might think Duke would throw in the towel and focus on the fourth set, already up 2-0. But it was clear that wasn’t going to happen.
As head coach Jolene Nagel called the Blue Devils’ final timeout, anxiousness was felt all through Cameron Indoor Stadium. Seventy-five seconds later, the two teams traded another point before a kill by graduate student Jess Robinson kicked off a 6-1 Duke run that suddenly set up match point for the home team. Chants of “Let’s go Duke” filled Cameron Indoor, the energy was back and the Blue Devils rolled to a win.
The gritty energy the Blue Devils showed in the third set against Clemson Sunday was a common theme on the weekend, where two close sets helped Duke get another straight-set win just two nights earlier at Virginia.
“That's been one of the strengths of our team is they've been in these tight third sets,” Nagel said. “I think they've shown their resiliency as far as to be in those close situations and keep pounding, as you might say.”
The Blue Devils (19-9, 10-7 in the ACC) won the first set against the Cavaliers (10-16, 3-13) narrowly, 25-23 behind several key kills by graduate student Gracie Johnson. The second set was even closer, as both kills and attack errors by Duke seesawed the score past 25, before a combined block by Robinson and Junior Rachel Richardson gave the Blue Devils the 29-27 win to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the match. The third set was no contest as Duke jumped all the way out to 18-5 and didn’t look back, finishing the set 25-14.
A quick trip home made way for a celebratory Sunday, as the program honored five graduates and two seniors before the match against Clemson (16-13, 7-10). The first set was all seniors, as Duke jumped out to an early 5-0, then 8-1 lead, thanks to two kills by graduate student Georgia Stavrinides. The Blue Devils stayed on the gas and cruised to a comfortable 25-20 that never felt that close. The Tigers got their first lead early in the second, out to a 3-2 advantage, but a 7-2 burst for Duke pushed it to a 25-22 second-set win.
As the third set began, the Blue Devils snagged a commanding 10-6 lead, and it seemed the Blue Devils would walk away with ease. But Clemson wasn’t done. A 4-0 run brought the Tigers back into it, but Duke pulled away again. At 16-13, though, its luster seemed to fade. Two Clemson spikes, a Blue Devil mishit, then an umpire ruling put the Tigers on top for just the second time all game. It was 21-17 after their 9-1 run.
“I think they had to pick it up,” Nagel said of her team’s performance in the third set. “Clemson was passing very well today, and we needed to serve a little bit tougher against them, so those were a few things that we tried to focus on.”
And focus they did. Duke now sat in the driver's seat with a chance to close out the set and sweep the match. Clemson did not back down, though, and each side traded more points as the Blue Devils got two more chances to close it out, then the Tigers had one of their own. It wasn’t until two kills by Johnson put the game away, giving Duke the straight-set victory.
Johnson showed out in her final home match, leading the team with 14 kills, a nice addition to graduate student Emma Worthington’s double-double off of 43 assists and 13 digs.
“Seeing them as freshmen to where they are now has been quite incredible,” Nagel said. “And I think that's one of the reasons we're able to get some of these tight sets is they've just got so much experience.”
All the honored seniors filled the stat sheets, but the victory wasn’t without stellar performances by Keefe and Richardson, too. Each had 10 kills as they came alive in sets two and three that drove the Blue Devils to the win.
“We're going to need them moving forward, but we're going to need some younger players to really develop during the spring as well,” Nagel said of the two outside hitters.
This weekend was a nice rebound after a tough road loss to No. 5 Louisville a week prior, and the team has momentum before they close the regular season at North Carolina Friday.
“It’s not easy to go over to Chapel Hill and come back with a win,” Nagel said. “So we're going to just make sure we exhale, rest up just a little bit, recover and then do everything we can to make sure we're ready for that.”
A win would give Nagel 500 wins in her Duke career. First serve is set for 2 p.m. at Carmichael Arena.
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