Duke is usually still competing for a national championship midway into May.
But this year is a different story.
The Blue Devils’ season ended with a 4-0 second-round NCAA tournament defeat to No. 7 Georgia Sunday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga. The Bulldogs fed off the support of its home crowd and did not allow Duke to gain any momentum.
The regional loss marks the first time since 2007 that the Blue Devils have failed to advance to the third round of the NCAA tournament.
“Honestly, they just played better than we did,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I told our team after that we lost to a better team. And its hard to say. It doesn’t happen to us that often where I just feel like we got beat and [Sunday] we just got beat. They were just better than us."
For the third consecutive match, the Blue Devils started slow, surrendering the doubles point as the Bulldogs led from the start in each of the three doubles matches.
Duke dropped its first doubles match when the duo of senior Ester Goldfeld and sophomore Alyssa Smith fell to the No. 43 team of Silvia Garica and Kennedy Shaffer at the second doubles position. At 4-3, the Georgia tandem captured four of the last five games to run away with the match 8-4.
The Bulldogs clinched the doubles point when their 11th-ranked doubles pair of Ellen Perez and Lauren Herring defeated junior Beatrice Capra and freshman Samantha Harris 8-6. Perez and Herring closed out the match after Duke’s No. 36 tandem battled out of a 2-5 hole to within one game of their opposition.
Senior Annie Mulholland and sophomore Chalena Scholl—who trailed Caroline Brinson and Hannah King 7-4—abandoned their match at the No. 3 spot.
“We were playing really good doubles [during the regular season],” Ashworth said. “Our teams were communicating really well and making good decisions. And all of a sudden from the ACC tournament through the NCAA tournament, we struggled with simple things in our doubles. That's something that we definitely need to take a look at in the future. We practiced well going into the tournament. We just struggled down in Athens on both days.”
As singles matches began, Georgia kept its foot on the gas pedal.
The Bulldogs took a 2-0 advantage on court six with Brinson’s 6-2, 6-1 rout of freshman Rebecca Smaller, who had not played since March 28 against Pittsburgh.
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At the No. 4 spot, Rachel Kahan’s quick starts in each set were not enough to give Duke its first point. After winning the first game of the initial set against the 59th-ranked Shaffer, Kahan surrendered the next six games. The senior from Unionville, Conn., battled back to take a 4-0 lead in the second set, but Shaffer quickly regained her rhythm as she once again captured six consecutive games to take the match 6-1, 6-4.
With the loss, Kahan finished her career at Duke just short of 100 wins with an overall record of 96-27.
Georgia secured the win as Perez—ranked 63rd in the country—upset No. 39 Goldfeld 6-4, 6-3. The match between the second seeds was a tale of two sets. The first stanza saw four lead changes, as Goldfeld held a 4-3 advantage before Perez won the next three games. In the second set, however, Perez quickly took the lead and fought off Goldfeld’s comeback attempts.
"They’re really good and they have a chance to win the whole thing. It was a tough environment," Ashworth said. "They get great crowds there. It’s a fun place to play if you’re on the right side of things.”
Three other singles matches remained unfinished once the Bulldogs clinched the win. No 5. Herring held a 7-5, 4-2 lead against Capra at the first spot and the third-seeded Harris faced a 7-5, 3-2 deficit against Garcia. At the No. 5 spot, Scholl trailed 2-1 in the second set against King after capturing the first set 7-6.
“They played more aggressive than we did,” Ashworth said. “They played with more excitement than we did, more passion than we did. It’s a hard lesson to learn when that happens.”
The second-round loss concludes a frustrating season for the Blue Devils, who began the season ranked second in the country. With the exception of its comeback win against then-No. 7 Virginia, Duke struggled against top-15 competition—prior to the start of ACC play, the Blue Devils suffered five consecutive losses, four of which were against nonconference opponents ranked 11 or higher.
Ashworth’s squad recovered from those nonconference defeats and peaked at the start of ACC play, winning eight consecutive matches. Down the stretch, the Blue Devils dropped five of their last 10 matches.
“I don’t think as a group that we were able to play our best collectively on the biggest stage,” Ashworth said. “A lot of that falls back on us as coaches. We have to do a better job of making sure that we’re at our best when we need to be. We got a little bit satisfied. We had a great win against Virginia here and Clemson here. We got a little satisfied after that. We can’t expect that because of the history of our program that teams are just going to walk on the court and give us matches. Teams want to beat us and they’re going to play their best against us.... We have to play hungry every time we play.”
Goldfeld—Duke's best singles player—will continue her season in the NCAA singles tournament after receiving an at-large selection. Capra and Harris—the Blue Devils' top doubles team—were chosen as an alternate for the NCAA doubles field.
Looking ahead to next season, Duke should be right back in contention to advance to the later stages of the tournament. Among the seven Blue Devils to return next year will be freshmen Christina Makarova who missed the majority of the season recovering from knee surgery. Blue-chip high school recruits Ellyse Hamlin, Jessica Ho and Kaitlyn McCarthy, could also increase the firepower of Ashworth’s lineup.