With their backs against the wall for the first time this season, the Blue Devils gutted out a hard-fought victory Sunday.

After playing three doubles matches, Duke looked in peril of losing its first match of the young spring season. But the No. 14 Blue Devils recovered to take four of six singles points to defeat Northwestern 4-3 at the Wildcats’ Combe Tennis Center in Evanston, Ill. Competing in their first road dual match, freshmen Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin contributed to the successful effort, capturing half of the Blue Devil’s four points. Classmate Jessica Ho nearly added a fifth point, but came up on the wrong side a third-set tiebreak.

“It’s a different kind of pressure for the freshmen,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth told GoDuke.com. “It takes time to learn that kind of pressure, but I thought all three handled it very well on the court. It will make them better in non-pressure situations.”

Coming off of a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of No. 11 Oklahoma State, Northwestern (1-2) started doubles play on fire, with Alicia Barnett and Erin Larner defeating Duke’s No. 26-ranked doubles team of Hamlin and Beatrice Capra 6-4. In the next match to finish, the Wildcats’ seventh-ranked duo of Maddie Lipp and Lee Or dispatched Duke’s tandem of McCarthy and Samantha Harris with ease, 6-3. This secured the doubles point for the hosts and a disappointing start to the contest for the Blue Devils (4-0).

“We had some opportunities in doubles, and I think we played way too tentatively when we had those opportunities,” Ashworth said. “It looked like we were sitting back and hoping Northwestern would miss. They didn’t, and we need to be better than that in doubles.” 

On the singles side, the Blue Devils showed plenty of grit, capturing three of their four total victories in three-set matches.

But the score would get worse before it would get better. On court three, Harris fell to Barnett 2-6, 3-6 to give Northwestern a commanding 2-0 lead. However, junior Chalena Scholl subsequently recovered from a first-set loss to defeat Or 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 and put Duke back in contention.

To tie the competition, Hamlin improved her collegiate record to 7-2 by defeating Brooke Rischbieth 6-3, 2-6, 6-2. With the competition at a tipping point, No. 28 Capra fell behind 3-1 in the first set against Lipp before winning six of the next nine games to win 7-6. In the second set, she cruised to a 6-3 victory to give a Blue Devils a lead they would never relinquish.

Soon afterwards, McCarthy took care of the Wildcats’ Larner 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 to improve her singles record on the season to 8-5 and clinch the victory for the Blue Devils. After falling behind 5-2 in the first set, McCarthy rattled off five straight games to take the first frame. She would experience the opposite, however, in the second set, blowing a 4-0 lead and losing seven of the subsequent eight games to lose her chance at a straight set victory before bouncing back in the decisive set.

“I thought we did a really good job of putting doubles out of our minds when we stepped onto the court for singles,” Ashworth said. “We just grinded. We didn’t have a great match, but we finally broke through, won a match, and you could see the confidence.”

In the final match of the day, Ho fell 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 (7-6) at the hands of Jillian Rooney in a third-set tiebreaker, but the outcome of the match had already been decided.

The Blue Devils will look to build off the momentum and experience gathered Sunday as they prepare for the ITA National Team Indoor Championship Feb. 5-8 in Madison, Wisc.

“We needed a match like that for our three freshmen to be put in pressure situations,” Ashworth said. “Hopefully it’s a good learning experience and makes us better when we play next week in Madison.”