The Blue Devils and the Tar Heels had already met twice this season, but their most important matchup came Sunday with a chance to hoist the ACC championship trophy on the line.
No. 1 seed Duke fell to third-seeded North Carolina 4-2 in the ACC championship match at the Cary Tennis Park, giving the Tar Heels the conference title for the third year in a row. Duke, on the other hand, has not won an ACC title since 2012.
The Blue Devils got off to an early lead on the doubles side as Duke’s junior duo of No. 12 Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin defeated No. 3 Jessie Aney and Alexa Graham 6-1 on Court 1. The Tar Heel pairing broke Duke’s serve in the first game, but the Blue Devils responded with six straight games for the victory.
After the Duke tandem of sophomore Meible Chi and freshman Hannah Zhao fell to Marika Akkerman and Makenna Jones 4-6, the doubles point came down to the match on Court 2.
No. 5 Samantha Harris and Kelly Chen went down 3-4 midway through the set, but eventually earned the 7-5 win against No. 22 Sara Daavettila and Alle Sanford. On match point for the Blue Devils, Daavettila hit an underhand serve to Chen, who responded a forehand cross court as she approached the net beside Harris. Chen then lofted a soft backhand volley that set up her overhead slam to Daavettila’s feet for the match.
“On the changeover right before that, I told [Kelly] if you get a higher ball like that, don’t settle for a high backhand volley. Move your feet and hit an overhead. She did a great job of that,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “The exact target that I talked about was the service line and that’s right where she hit it. She did a good job of getting that ball first and then finishing it obviously when it was a big point like that.”
On the singles side, the Tar Heels (26-3) quickly evened the score at one apiece as No. 6 Harris—who was forced to retire due to injury in the semifinals—battled her injury, but lost to No. 7 Jones 1-6, 0-6.
“She’ll be fine. She just needs some time off. It was something that she suffered last week against UNC at the end of the match,” Ashworth said. “We just haven’t been able to give her the days and the time that she needs.”
No. 118 Hamlin defeated No. 96 Aney 6-2, 7-6 before Zhao fell in her match for Duke (22-2), losing in the third set. No. 54 Chi was then defeated by No. 27 Sanford in straight sets 6-7(4), 5-7, leaving the Tar Heels one win away from the championship with the final two matches entering the deciding third set.
“Ellyse [Hamlin] played well, competed well, was vocal and aggressive,” Ashworth said. “When she is like that, she wins matches like today. I was proud of her and proud of the effort that she put in.”
No. 28 Chen and No. 92 Graham split the first two sets with the Duke freshman taking the first one 7-5 before falling 4-6. After a break point for Chen barely sailed long with Graham leading the third set 5-4, the Tar Heels were one point away from the championship. However, the Cerritos, Calif., native stepped up on the deuce point, responding with a winner past Graham to even the set.
In the meantime on Court 3, No. 105 McCarthy also split the opening two frames with No. 41 Daavettila. In the third set, it was the Duke junior that broke Daavettila to open up a lead and soon after bring her just four points away from a victory. But Daavettila—who was out due to injury in last week’s meeting with these two teams—would go on to win the next three games, jumping out to a 6-5 advantage.
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Minutes later—on championship point for the Tar Heels— McCarthy double-faulted. Following back-to-back lets, the Cary, N.C., native missed the first serve into the net and then hit the second serve long as the Tar Heels clinched their third consecutive ACC tournament title.
“We put ourselves in opportunities to win and to close out matches and we just couldn’t,” Ashworth said. “If we want to be a championship team, then we have to go take it. Nobody is going to give anything to us at this level.... It is the first time this team has been in a championship team situation. Hopefully, we learn from it and in two weeks when we play again, we’ll be better because of it.”
Moving forward, Duke will take a break for final exams prior to taking the court once again in just about two weeks. The Blue Devils will likely remain in the top four of the ITA rankings, which would result in a top seed in the NCAA tournament and keep the Blue Devils in North Carolina for the rest of the postseason—they would play the opening weekend in Durham before moving on to the latter stages at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“I still believe that we’re the best team in the country,” Ashworth said. “Literally, we were three points away from winning the match today without our best player playing to the best of her ability. We just have to regroup and refocus and again, run through the finish line. Not get to the finish line and hope that someone just says, ‘Here you go, you can win this match.’”