"I'm really proud of the way we fought today," UT head coach Rob Patrick said. "Every single player that went in there played their hearts out. We did not play as well as we wanted to, but that had a little bit to do with how well Duke played."
"I think the difference in this match was the unforced errors that we had while hitting. Even with all those unforced errors, we put ourselves in a position to be successful. We just fell a little bit short."
Senior Sarah Blum posted team-highs with 15 kills and seven blocks in the final match of her outstanding career, while fellow classmates, Kelsey Fautsch and Annie Sadowski also saw their time at Rocky Top end, recording totals of eight kills and 11 digs, respectively. Freshman Leah Hinkey offered a glimpse of her bright future with a career-high 14 kills to go along with four blocks, and sophomore Chelsea Noble tallied a personal-best with 22 digs against the Blue Devils.
The Big Orange offense stalled out of the gate, hitting just .093 as it fell in the initial frame, 30-22. The Blue Devils used a balanced attack, with four players pounding out three or more kills, as it had a .350 hitting percentage in the set.
Duke took control early and UT was never able to recover. Following a Hinkey smash that put her team up 7-6, the Blue Devils claimed five straight scores to take a lead that they would never relinquish. A three-point run by the Orange and White, capped off by one of Noble's three kills on the night, narrowed the gap to a single score, but Duke answered right back with three consecutive points of its own to hold off the surge.
The Lady Vols would get no closer for the rest of the game, before Ali Hausfeld ended it with a solo block.
The momentum of the match reversed course in the second set, as Tennessee was able to send the match to the intermission tied at one game each, by winning 30-26. A pair of seniors, Blum and Fautsch, propelled the Big Orange attack with four kills each in the frame. Equally as impressive was the fact that neither had a single attack error in a combined 14 swings during that span.
The Lady Vols quickly moved ahead 6-2 after a pair of unforced errors by Duke and kills from Blum and freshman Kylie Marshall. That lead would not last long, however, as the Blue Devils used a five-point scoring spree to take a 12-9 advantage.
A Fautsch blast and a combined block by Blum and Noble stopped the bleeding before the two squads traded eight straight points. With the scoreboard reading 16-15 in favor of Duke, Hinkey sparked a four-point run that gave her team the lead for good and tied the match as both squads headed to the locker room.
After the break, Tennessee could not regain the momentum it had worked so hard to capture, dropping a tightly-contested third frame, 30-25. Both squads fought furiously to gain the advantage, but neither was able to go up by more than three scores before emerging deadlocked at 21-21.
A kill by Hausfeld prompted a timeout by Patrick, but the tactic did not work as Duke earned points on the next two plays to move ahead 24-21. Another Hinkey kill shrank the lead to one, but the Blue Devils were able to hang on, posting three consecutive scores to close out the set, which was punctuated by a sharp block from Sue Carls and Carrie DeMange.
Despite stellar performances by Blum and Hinkey, the Lady Vols' season ended with a 30-27 loss to Duke in game four. The two middle blockers punched out a combined 10 kills on 15 attacks with no errors and had a block each in the frame. After UT jumped out to an early 9-6 lead, the Blue Devils used two runs of three and five points, respectively, to take a three-point advantage at 21-18.
The Orange and White was not going down without a fight, however, and benefited from three consecutive Duke attack errors, following a Blum putaway, to tie the set back up. During the next nine plays, neither team was able to move ahead by more than one point, as the two squads battled to a 27-27 tie score. Once again, the Blue Devils were stronger in the end, smashing out kills on three successive plays to eliminate the Lady Vols from the NCAA Tournament.
The loss ends the careers of Blum, Sadowski and Fautsch, who leave Rocky Top as the second most successful class in school history. The trio amassed a winning percentage of .754 and accumulated a record of 98-33 during its time in Knoxville. The three outstanding athletes also pushed Tennessee further into the NCAA Tournament than it had ever gone, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2004 and the Final Four in 2005.
"The thing that I am most proud of, is that [our seniors] came to the University of Tennessee before Tennessee had a name," Patrick said. "They made a commitment to come here and take us to uncharted territory. I will always be thankful to them for that."