After their eight-year streak of advancing to the Sweet 16 ended last season, the Blue Devils wanted to get off to a fast start in their NCAA tournament opener Friday afternoon.
They did just that.
Ninth-seeded Duke cruised past Virginia Commonwealth 4-0 Friday afternoon at Ambler Tennis Stadium in its NCAA tournament opener. The Blue Devils captured the doubles point thanks to wins from their top two tandems, then got three straight-set singles victories to seal the win and advance to a Saturday second-round contest against Texas.
"The team is really excited," sophomore Samantha Harris said. "We know every match we play at NCAAs is going to be tough, so we know we've got to bring everything we can to every match. We did that today the best we could coming off a three-week break."
Although Duke (19-6) prevailed without surrendering a point in singles or doubles, many of Friday's matches were tight. After the Blue Devils' top doubles duo of Harris and freshman Kaitlyn McCarthy dominated the Rams' No. 1 team of Olga Barshcheuskaya and Darya Berezhnaya 6-1, the other two matches were left knotted at 4-4.
Duke's experience showed on court two, where juniors Chalena Scholl and Alyssa Smith finished a back-and-forth match by winning two consecutive games to seal the doubles point against freshmen Anna Rasmussen and Janina Braun of Virginia Commonwealth (12-10).
The Blue Devils' third doubles team of freshmen Jessica Ho and Elysse Hamlin was leading Magda Aubets and Yana Morar 5-4 when the doubles point was clinched.
All six singles matches featured back-and-forth first sets and multiple breaks of serve, with players on both teams looking to find their footing in long rallies rather than forcing the issue and venturing toward the net more often.
“We let some opportunities go where we weren’t aggressive enough with our shot selections,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “We were more worried about making balls than taking the chance. We have to play a little bit freer tomorrow and looser.”
Ho heeded Ashworth's advice after starting her match against Berezhnaya at the No. 5 singles spot by splitting the first four games. The Wexford, Pa., native then took control of the match, winning eight straight games to close out the first set and build a commanding lead in the second before closing out the match 6-2, 6-1. With Friday's victory, Ho increased her individual winning streak to seven matches.
The 65th-ranked singles player in the country, Scholl also became more aggressive as her match against Barshcheuskaya at the top singles spot wore on. Scholl built a 4-1 lead in the opening frame before Barshcheuskaya took an injury timeout and battled back and eventually dropped the set 6-4.
Although she struggled with unforced errors at times during the first set, Scholl found a rhythm in the second, jumping out to a 4-0 lead and closing out the set 6-1 to give her team a 3-0 overall lead.
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“Chalena has one of the best forehands in the country. She just has to do a good job of using it and not just getting balls in play," Ashworth said. "[Ho] played a smart match. She doesn’t give away a lot of free points, and she’ll have to do that again tomorrow.”
Harris, who often played No. 3 singles this year but moved up to the second spot Friday, was able to cash in an early lead in the first set by eventually winning it 6-3 against Rasmussen. The Melbourne, Australia, native seized a 5-3 lead in the second set to put Rasmussen and her teammates one game away from elimination, but Rasmussen fought back to tie the set at 5-5.
Duke's hottest singles player quickly jumped on her second chance to close out the match, however, claiming the next two games to respond and seal the win for her team and increase her winning streak to 12.
"At the five-all game, those two games I just knuckled down every single point," Harris said. "I played a lot tougher, didn't make as many errors and managed to close it out."
When the match ended, the three remaining singles matches were close. At the No. 4 singles spot, Hamlin led Braun 6-4, 4-4, Aubets led McCarthy 6-2, 5-6 on court three and Smith led Morar 5-7, 6-3, 1-0 at No. 6 singles.
Although they struggled early in their matches on new courts—McCarthy, the 55th-ranked singles player in the nation, played much of the season at the No. 2 singles spot and Smith had been out of the lineup since mid-April in favor of freshman Christina Makarova—they rebounded in their respective second sets.
"That was important for them to have that positive feeling when they walked off the court heading into tomorrow," Ashworth said.
The Blue Devils will turn their attention to Texas, which fell to Duke 4-3 at an indoor match in Durham Feb. 21. But both teams are much different than they were early in the spring, as the Blue Devils are now playing without senior Beatrice Capra—who has been sidelined with an injury—and the Longhorns are just finding their footing under first-year head coach Howard Joffe.
Since April 3, Texas (15-8) has gone 6-2 led by Breaunna Addison, the No. 10 singles player in the country. Addison and Dani Wagland also are ranked 16th nationally in doubles. The Longhorns dispatched William & Mary 4-2 in Friday's first match to set up a rematch with Duke Saturday at noon.
“When they play their best, they’re very high emotionally,” Ashworth said. “It comes from the coaches and works its way down. If we can come out and play some solid doubles and emotionally be at our best, then the results will take care of themselves.”