Not so much context in this one. Florida State is a tournament team. Duke is not. This match won’t change that, either way. Florida State’s seed might suffer with a loss, but they’re in no danger of falling from the tournament.
Only three Duke players have played in every set the team has played this season, and only five have played in every match. The only two to start every match are junior middle blocker Chelsea Cook and towering 6-foot-5 senior middle blocker Christiana Gray. They are the team’s two best hitters, both checking in a touch over .300 on the year. Gray averages two and a half kills per set. It’s been a bit of a revolving door at the setter position for the Blue Devils, as they have not one or two but four different players with triple-digit assists on the season. One is starting libero Ali McCurdy, which is just weird as hell. Liberos aren’t supposed to start the offense. But McCurdy does her traditional job well, too, leading the ACC in digs per set.
The Seminoles are the heavy favorites tonight. They’ve lost just three matches on the season, all to teams that are mortal locks to make the NCAA tournament (Miami, Pepperdine, and North Carolina). That loss to the Tar Heels is actually Florida State’s most recent result, and it snapped a 16-match winning streak. The Seminoles have the two most efficient hitters in the ACC, senior middle blocker Sareea Freeman and junior Ashley Neff, at .456 and .412 respectively for the season (!!! That’s like hitting that well for a season in baseball, which…doesn’t ever happen). Neff also leads the conference in blocks at 1.6 per set, and the next best player is at 1.3. That’s sort of scary. The ‘Noles run a two-setter offense, with both Duygu Duzceler (one of four international players on the squad) and Sarah Wickstrom (a proud Floridian) seeing substantial playing time.
Neff’s 400th career block capped off a mini-run near the beginning of the first set to give the Seminoles a 4-1 advantage. The lead extended to 10-4 on the back of Freeman’s first kill of the match and an awkward breakdown in the Blue Devil offense ahead of their first timeout. Duke took three of the four points after the timeout, culminating with Cook smashing a kill and leaping for a block solo to force the Seminoles’ first timeout. The Blue Devils again had their offense just…kind of stop on 12-7 and 13-7 to get Duke to call their second timeout at just 14-7.
Duke looked like they were playing one of their better points of the set on 16-10, as a nice low serve got Florida State out of system and on the defensive a little, but it ended with another awkward breakdown in offense leading to the Blue Devils not safely returning the ball in three contacts. The commentators attributed it to the youth of the Duke team, with several freshmen on the court. Four different Seminoles had multiple kills in this first set, with their lead peaking at 10 points at 23-13 after one of the best rallies of the set. They closed it out 25-16.
The second set was more of the same as we saw in the first. The Seminoles again ran out to an early lead, with Olivera Medic‘s float-serve getting their first two points with aces. The run extended to 6-1 with a pair of kills off the hand of Marija Milosavljevic before Duke finally decided to call time. Duke finally sided out after the timeout, and hung resilient as the set went on to close to within two at 9-7. They continued to show their inexperience, though, in allowing Florida State run back to 12-7 with what seemed like a complete lack of connection between setter and hitter as the offense broke down again.
Still, though, Duke’s hitting in this set, when the offense was able to execute, was quite efficient, and they drew it even at 14. They also had some solid blocking throughout the set. A service ace off the hand of Laura Williams gave the Blue Devils their first lead of the night at 19-18, prompting the Seminoles’ timeout. Milosavljevic brought the Seminoles even again at 20, and before the cameras could even return from a replay, Gray put Duke up again at 21-20. This got Florida State to take their second timeout.
Freeman, redeeming herself from a rare error earlier in the set, got the ‘Noles even at 21 coming out of the timeout. Milosavljevic and Neff’s big double block put Florida State back on top, prompting the timeout from the other side. Neff made a rare hitting error of her own to put Duke up at 23-22, and then redeemed it on the next point with a kill. The Blue Devils got the first set point at 24-23, but Neff staved it off. Elizabeth Campbell, one of the better scorers for Duke on the match, hit it wide on 24-24 to give Florida State set point, and then she hit it right into Neff’s block to give the Seminoles a 2-0 lead at the intermission.
For the third straight set, the Seminoles asserted themselves to an early lead. At 4-1, the ‘Rejection Connection’ (as the announcers dubbed them…I kinda like it) of Neff and Milosavljevic connected for an emphatic block double, and Medic capped off the run with a service ace. The Blue Devils, though, refused to simply fold up their tents and ran it back to 7-5 culminating with an ace from Campbell. After one side out from the Seminoles, the Blue Devils ran it even to 8, prompting Florida State’s timeout. Duke took the five points coming out of the timeout to go on top, with some terrific front-line blocking and hitting from Emily Sklar leading the way. Without even having scored a single point since the first timeout, Florida State then burned their second.
Duke’s run ended coming out of the second timeout, with a netball service error and an attack outside the antenna to bring the Seminoles back within three. Duke went back up four on a big block from Campbell and Cook. Florida State got back within two when a strong serve off the hand of Medic led to an overpass and an easy kill at the net for Fatma Yildirim. Duke found a star off the bench in this set, as Jeme Obeime led the way for the Blue Devils’ run with four kills in this set. Duke took their first timeout at 20-18. The Seminoles finally drew even at 22, prompting the second Duke timeout, with a service ace off the hand of Duzceler. She got another ace coming out of the timeout. Milosavljevic got the Seminoles to match point at 24-22, and they converted with a block solo from Neff.
#13 Florida State d. Duke (25-16, 26-24, 25-22)
Well. That was an intriguing match. I was expecting three sets like the first one, to be honest. Duke showed some flashes of brilliance, and frankly it looked for all the world like they were going to force a fourth, but they showed some serious inexperience at several points in the match as well. But with just two seniors on the Blue Devil roster, one of them a backup libero, there’s cause for guarded optimism in Durham.
One of the commentators put it pretty well — we caught glimpses of the future in this match, but we saw much more of the present. And as it should have, the team with the better skills at present won out. Serve well held by the Seminoles, and they look set for a strong run in the NCAA tournament.