Duke women's tennis prepares for rematch against No. 2 seed North Carolina in NCAA tournament
By securing a slot in the NCAA Round of 16 and dropping just one point in the first two rounds, the Blue Devils are playing some of their best tennis of the year at the right time.
However, Duke still needs to find a way past North Carolina.
The 15th-seeded Blue Devils will continue their NCAA tournament run Friday at 9 a.m. at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga. Standing in their way are the second-seeded Tar Heels, a team that dominated the Duke 5-2 just a month ago. If the Blue Devils want a shot at their first quarterfinal appearance since 2014, Duke must find early traction in doubles and translate that momentum to a few singles upsets.
“[Our mindset] is just believing in ourselves,” Blue Devil head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I told them after we played last Saturday if they don’t believe in themselves and they don't trust themselves and trust their teammates, they shouldn't bother getting on the bus.”
In Duke’s last outing against North Carolina, the Blue Devils (22-5) found early success in doubles, taking a surprise early lead on the Tar Heels.
Although North Carolina (32-2) boasts the No. 4 doubles tandem in the nation with Hayley Carter and Jessie Aney, Duke can still find success on the lower courts. The Blue Devils’ senior tandem of Chalena Scholl and Alyssa Smith boasts an impressive 8-3 conference record, including a quick 6-2 win against the Tar Heels’ Cassandra Vazquez and Alexa Graham.
Duke’s Court 3 duo of junior Samantha Harris and sophomore Ellyse Hamlin hold a similarly impressive 7-2 mark in the ACC, taking eight of their last 10 matches—including the 7-6 decider against North Carolina.
The Blue Devils also boast depth in the middle courts in singles, which has helped secure big wins all spring for Duke.
No. 55 Scholl has only dropped one match in the ACC—her 6-3, 6-3 showdown against No. 35 Aney. However, the senior has proven to be tough under pressure, clinching a trio of 3-3 split matches in the regular season. If Scholl can rise to the occasion in the last NCAA run of her career, the Blue Devils may be able to secure an upset singles win.
No. 99 Kaitlyn McCarthy has won her last 21 matches, including an upset win—and Duke's sole singles point—against the Tar Heels' No. 74 Graham. McCarthy has been a consistently dominant presence on Court 4, dropping just two sets in her last six matches since playing North Carolina.
“Even though they have a really strong lineup, so do we, and we have a good chance to stack up against them,” McCarthy said.
However, North Carolina's singles lineup has proven to be one of the most dangerous in the nation and has been instrumental in maintaining the Tar Heels’ 12-match winning streak.
No. 2 Hayley Carter has yet to be beaten in 2017, dominating on Court 1—including a routine 7-5, 6-3 win against No. 80 Harris.
Harris sat out singles in the second round against Tennessee with a back injury she suffered during her doubles match, but Ashworth felt confident after the match that she would be ready to go this week.
Rounding out the Tar Heels’ upper courts is No. 18 Sara Daavettila, who routed No. 43 Blue Devil Meible Chi 7-5, 6-1 in the regular season. North Carolina also boasts some of the strongest lower courts in the nation and has swept 11 opponents 7-0 this year.
Duke will also have to leave the friendly confines of Ambler Tennis Stadium, where it went undefeated this year. The Blue Devils are just 1-4 on neutral courts, presenting another obstacle in the way of a monumental upset Friday.
“Ambler has been great for us,” Ashworth said. “We just have to create our own energy away from here. We have to do a good job with that and really be supportive among ourselves on the court."
If Duke can make it past North Carolina, it will continue to the quarterfinals Sunday against either No. 7 seed Stanford or No. 10 seed Michigan.
“There are 300 and something Division I women's tennis teams, and there are 16 that now have a chance to win it—and we're one of those 16,” Ashworth said. “You have to be proud of that, but you can't be satisfied with that. Go down there, play with hunger and drive, and don't be happy just to be there.”