On a day filled with upsets including a loss by its in-state rival No. 2 North Carolina, Duke did what two other top-ranked teams on its side of the bracket could not.
After rain pushed the round of 16 matchup indoors, the third-seeded Blue Devils swept No. 14 seed Northwestern 4-0 Thursday morning at the Wake Forest Indoor Tennis Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Duke used a strong start in singles play to earn its place in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.
Despite dropping two of the first three games, the duo of Meible Chi and Hannah Zhao on Court 3 gave the Blue Devils an early lead after the sophomore-freshman pairing bounced back to defeat Northwestern’s Rheeya Doshi and Julie Byrne 6-4. No. 9 Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin followed it up by knocking off the No. 4 team of Erin Larner and Maddie Lipp 6-4 to clinch the all-important doubles point. Duke’s doubles win snapped the Wildcats' streak of 16 straight doubles points.
“We haven’t been playing great doubles the last couple of weeks and I thought that our doubles was so high energy that it kind of carried us through,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I was really proud of our girls with that and what they put into the doubles especially.”
The Blue Devils (26-3) did not let up when singles play began. As was the case in doubles moments prior, Duke led around the midway point on all six courts. On the top, No. 6 Samantha Harris jumped out to a 4-1 lead as Zhao was up 5-1 on the other side of the lineup. However, it was No. 55 Chi who won the first opening set of the day.
Duke ended up winning all six first sets to continue the momentum from doubles.
“You look up at the scoreboard but then you catch yourself, because you start thinking of other things for sure, but after the doubles the one thing that I stressed to them was we haven’t accomplished anything,” Ashworth said. “We have to go out and we’ve got to play singles like the doubles and our goal is to win six single matches and we have to fight that way. And they responded really well.
On Court 5, No. 84 Hamlin took the first set 6-3 after leading 3-1. The Fairfield, Conn., native did not drop a game in the second frame to put the Blue Devils two matches away from a trip to the quarterfinals.
After Chi stormed out to a 6-1 first set win, the second set was more of a battle than a cruise. But the Weston, Fla., native fought off Lee Or 6-4 to move the dual match score to 3-0.
In the second sets across the board, the Wildcats (23-6) competed more closely with the ACC regular-season champions. Harris dropped the second frame 2-6, which gave Northwestern some room to operate on the other three courts whose second sets were still not decided.
Duke freshman No. 28 Kelly Chen used a 3-2 lead to defeat Julie Byrne in a hard-fought 7-5 victory in the first. But in the second set, Byrne got the best of the ACC Freshman of the Year through the first five games, as Chen only won a single game.
In the sixth and final singles slot, Zhao took the opener 6-4 and went down 1-2 early on in the second. But three games in a row for the San Diego native put the Blue Devil freshman only two games away from the win.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the win would not come that easily. After taking the 5-4 lead, Zhao could not convert on a match point as Doshi knotted the match at five apiece. But Zhao recovered and walked away with victories in the next two games for a straight-set clinching win.
“I just fought for every shot that I could,” Zhao said of the clinching match point. “I knew that if I kept strong and fought for every point, it would come with good results.... Getting through that first match and pulling through such a tough two sets gave me a huge confidence boost.”
Zhao’s win left the remaining three singles matches unfinished. After Harris dropped the second set, the Melbourne, Australia native led 2-1 when play halted. On Court 3, McCarthy split the first two sets against No. 78 Lipp 6-3, 3-6, and Chen was down 3-5 in the second when her classmate earned the victory.
The Blue Devils will return to action Saturday at noon to face off against 11th-seeded Texas Tech, which upset sixth-seeded Texas 4-1 Thursday.
Although Saturday’s meeting between the two teams will be the first this season, the teams have met before in the fall. McCarthy and Hamlin defeated Texas Tech’s No. 28 Sarah Dvorak and Sabrina Federici 4-6, 6-3, 1-0(5) at the ITA All-American in October. The Red Raiders duo defeated Harris and Chen in another third-set tiebreaker. Texas Tech also boasts four ranked singles players to match up with Duke’s five.
Also on Thursday, second-seeded North Carolina was upset by Stanford 4-1 to knock the Tar Heels out of the tournament in the lower half of the Blue Devils' side of the bracket. North Carolina’s loss to the Cardinal is the second in as many years, as the Tar Heels also fell to Stanford 4-2 in last year’s quarterfinals.
By virtue of seeding, the Blue Devils are now the favorites from their side of the bracket to advance to the national championship match next Tuesday afternoon. Top-seeded Vanderbilt swept Miami 4-0 to advance to the quarterfinals.