CARY, N.C.—Kaitlyn McCarthy had been in this position before. Nearly a year ago, the then-junior needed to pull out a crucial third set for Duke to bring home its first ACC title since 2012.
So, after failing to do so in 2018, McCarthy looked ready to flip the script and help the Blue Devils finish off a seemingly improbable comeback.
Yet, just six points after the senior double-faulted and failed to hold serve down 4-3, North Carolina was celebrating once again.
The top-seeded Tar Heels held on for a 4-2 win, giving North Carolina a fourth consecutive ACC tournament title at Cary Tennis Park Sunday afternoon. No. 2 seed Duke failed to take the doubles point for the second time in three matches, a point that could’ve proved vital in the Blue Devils’ quest to end the Tar Heels’ conference dominance.
It was also North Carolina’s third win of the season against Duke, and there’s a very good chance the teams could meet once more in the Final Four in Orlando next month.
“UNC’s a great team, but I also think we’re a great team,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I love where our team is, even though we lost like that. We proved to ourselves today that we can beat them.”
Neither the Blue Devils (23-3) nor Tar Heels (29-1) controlled things in doubles, at least early on. Duke lead on all three courts a few games in, but North Carolina would come back to take control on Courts 1 and 3, ultimately holding on for a pair of 6-3 wins to take the early advantage.
The momentum carried over into singles, and it looked like the Tar Heels might just run away with the victory. Margaryta Bilokin lost 3-6, 2-6 without much of a fight as classmate Maria Mateas fell behind 2-6, 1-5 on Court 1.
With North Carolina grabbing four of the six first sets, the Blue Devils desperately needed to make some noise.
Fortunately, Ellyse Hamlin did just that, polishing off a 7-5, 6-1 win to get Duke on the board and extend the senior’s individual winning streak to a half dozen.
“Ellyse is such a fighter,” Ashworth said. “[She] did a great job of staying composed…. She’s been so solid for us over the last two years and never has any mental doubt when she walks on the court.”
Mateas, in the meantime, clawed back to level her second set at 5-5, yet the Chapel Hill native failed to give herself a shot in a tiebreaker, unable to hold serve down 5-6. That put the Tar Heels within a point of the title.
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Next door, Kelly Chen continued her battle. After losing the first set in a tiebreaker, Chen would win 12 of the final 13 games to give the Blue Devils their second point.
It was a similar story for Meible Chi, who also lost a first-set tiebreaker to seventh-ranked Alexa Graham. Chi turned on the jets, cruising to a 6-3 second set win and the junior from Weston, Fla., looked to be on her way to a victory, leading 4-0 in the third.
But Chi would not get the chance to see out her win. The hoots and hollers from Court 4 came mid-point as North Carolina stormed over to celebrate with tournament MVP Cameron Morra, as she came from down a set to take out McCarthy.
“I was really proud of how Meible handled herself in coming back and not letting that first set affect her,” Ashworth said.
Duke, by virtue of its 13 ACC regular-season victories, earned a double bye, meaning the Blue Devils didn't have to start their postseason run until Friday.
Of course, the Blue Devils found a way to make things a little more difficult from the get-go, playing indoors in Chapel Hill due to severe weather Friday night.
They dropped their first doubles point since their March 6 matchup with the Tar Heels, giving No. 7 seed Virginia an early advantage. But Bilokin and Chi made quick work of their matches, dropping just five combined games to give Duke a lead, and Mateas later finished off the 4-2 victory, taking her second-set tiebreaker to send the Blue Devils back to the semifinals.
Against third-seeded Florida State, Duke grabbed the doubles point with relative ease, only to fall behind 2-1 after McCarthy and Mateas fell in straight sets. Chen and Bilokin then won for a second consecutive day, putting the Blue Devils back ahead, but a come-from-behind win by the Seminoles' Emmanuelle Salas put all eyes on Court 5.
Hamlin, who had lost just twice in singles all season before Saturday, took the first set 6-3 and closed things out in a second-set tiebreaker to set the stage for a Tobacco Road rematch.
Duke will now have an extended break before the NCAA tournament begins. The selection show is set for April 30, when the Blue Devils will learn their opponents—it is expected they will host the first three rounds as one of the top eight seeds.
“We just have to stay sharp,” Ashworth said. “We don’t really have to change anything.”