CARY, N.C.—Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the third time was not the charm.
After beating No. 9 North Carolina twice earlier this season, No. 11 Duke simply could not get the job done Saturday, losing 4-1 to the Tar Heels in the semifinal of the ACC Championship semifinals.
“I just want to congratulate UNC,” Duke head coach Ramsey Smith said. “We gave ourselves a shot and we fought until the end and that’s all I can ask for.”
The match got off to a tight start. With the doubles point up for grabs, the Blue Devil duo of Jason Tahir and Josh Levine lost a close tiebreak to the Tar Heel tandem of Oysten Steiro and Nelson Vick. It was just the second time in the last nine matches that the Blue Devils have dropped the doubles point.
The Tar Heels (24-14, 11-2 in the ACC) have had the Blue Devils' number in doubles all season long, securing the match's opening point for the third time in as many matches. Although the Blue Devils (19-6, 11-2) had proven that losing the doubles point did not mean that the match was over, the early 1-0 hole put Duke at an early disadvantage.
“We had been in that position twice before and we were able to come through and against really good teams like UNC that’s a tough task to ask for," Smith said.
The start of singles play only increased the Tar Heel lead, as North Carolina's No. 73 Brett Clark defeated Raphael Hemmeler 6-3, 6-4. It was the second weekend in a row that Hemmeler was unable to get anything going against the Tar Heel freshman.
Things started to look a little bit better for the Blue Devils when sophomore Bruno Semenzato defeated Steiro 6-3, 6-2 to put Duke on the board, still trailing 2-1.
That was the only win the Blue Devils would get.
After beating No. 35 Ronnie Schneider two times earlier this season, No. 36 Fred Saba did not quite have the same touch on the court Saturday, losing 6-4, 6-2.
The Tar Heels then punched their ticket to the finals as Vick defeated freshman T.J. Pura 7-6, 6-3. The loss was the first collegiate dual match defeat of Pura's career.
Duke did not play as poorly as the result may indicate on paper, but just could not come up with any answers this time to stop North Carolina.
“I felt like we didn’t quite grab the momentum in singles like we have the last two times,” Smith said. “I thought UNC played more aggressively than maybe the last two times, but it’s a couple points here and there and it was obviously a close match.”
Despite the disappointment of not making it to the ACC Championship final for a second consecutive year, Saturday's loss was just a hiccup at the end of a stretch in which Duke has been playing its best tennis of the season. The Blue Devils came into Saturday's match riding a nine-game winning streak and had overcome various injuries and the loss of their top singles player to get there.
“We’ve had a great end to the season,” Smith said. “We made a whole lot of progress and I’m really proud of everything we’ve accomplished. This is one match, but I definitely feel that we’ve gained a lot of momentum over the last few weeks.”