With the final matches of the season on the horizon, the Blue Devils needed a win against Florida State to help position Duke for an NCAA tournament berth.
With the score knotted 3-3 and sophomore Sean Sculley battling Rana Roop Bhullar for the game winner, Sculley shook off a 7-6 loss in set one for a dominant 6-1 showing in set two. After a back-and-forth affair saw the Hilton Head Island, S.C., native take the lead at 5-4 with just two shots needed to ice the game, the Blue Devils looked like they would finally catch a break in what has been a difficult ACC season.
Instead, Bhullar rallied back Sunday afternoon at Ambler Tennis Stadium to knot the score 5-5 and dominated on the final two games to give the match to Florida State by a score of 4-3 off a chipped shot from Sculley, leaving Duke with a bitter taste in its mouth headed into the ACC tournament.
"I felt really good. I love having Sean out there in the end," head coach Ramsey Smith said. "He's a gamer. I've known that all along. It's one of those things where you're going to lose some of those matches. He has won some huge ones for us and has lost some, but he loves being in that moment. It just didn't go his way today."
Although Duke (10-13, 4-8 in the ACC) came into the contest on their heels after a tough loss to N.C. State earlier in the week, the Blue Devils hardly looked rattled in doubles play.
Against tough competition from Courts 1 through 3, Duke played lights out. Although Court 2 started as a back-and-forth affair with the tandems of Sculley and senior Catalin Mateas faced off against Bryn Nahrung and Lucas Poullain, the Blue Devils eventually broke through to close out the match 6-4.
Moments later, juniors Robert Levine and Spencer Furman downed Chase Wood and Juan Martin Jalif 6-3 on Court 3, powering through extended rallies despite never losing hold of the lead. Although the doubles point had then been clinched, seniors Jason Lapidus and Vincent Lin were just seconds from notching their win in the books, breaking down Sebastian Arcila and Alex Knaff on a 5-4, 40-40 split.
However, while the doubles point and the deciding game came down to the wire, the rest of the singles matches were far less tight.
No. 41 Poullain was quick to down No. 99 Nick Stachowiak 6-0, 6-1 on Court 1 to level the score, dominating one of Duke's normally solid high-court players, who is back after a two-game hiatus due to an illness. The Seminoles (17-9, 6-6) quickly pulled ahead with yet another fast win on Court 2, this time courtesy of Knaff with a 6-3, 6-1 over Furman.
Although Duke would notch dominant wins on Court 6 and Court 4 from Lin and Levine, respectively, Juan Martin Jalif dropped Mateas 6-3, 6-2 to set up the game decider.
"It was a heck of a match," Smith said. "It came down to the last court. Both guys competed great, left everything on the court, but fell a couple points short in the end. Our doubles was great, again. I'm really excited with our doubles. Florida State did a great job of rebounding and grabbing the momentum early on quite a few courts, especially at the top. We battled back, gave ourselves a chance, but fell a little short."
With their loss to the Seminoles, the Blue Devils will need three records in the ACC tournament to reach a .500 record and a top-42 ranking, the general cutoff for a chance at the NCAA tournament.
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"The positives are we're playing good tennis," Smith said. "You look back at the last month and we've played well every single match. We've lost a couple heartbreakers but we've won some really good matches. It's all about how you finish and we'll get ready for the ACC tournament."