For the second year in a row, the Blue Devils advanced to the Final Four and looked to cement the program’s second national championship.
But the wait will be one year longer as fifth-seeded Duke fell 2-4 against top-seeded Georgia at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. Playing live on The Tennis Channel for the second consecutive evening, the Blue Devils were unable to complete the dual match comeback on court six.
Down a point against the Bulldogs, Duke required victories in both the second and sixth singles to advance to the national championship Sunday. But the prospects of a win for Duke freshman Margaryta Bilokin looked slim as she trailed 1-4 in the deciding frame.
The one-game-at-a-time approach proved to be valuable as Bilokin held serve in the next game and then broke Georgia’s No. 122 Meg Kowalski’s serve to bring her within a game. Kowalski broke back and took a 5-3 lead before Bilokin returned the favor to put the set back on serve.
In the ninth game of the deciding set, Bilokin won the first two points before losing the next three. She saved on match point, but on a deciding deuce point that would have evened the set at five-all, Bilokin missed a forehand long and Georgia celebrated a trip the finals.
“Margaryta, in the last two sets, did everything we asked her to do,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said at the post-match press conference. “Be aggressive, try to force issue, don’t play into her hand of pushing. She won that way last night, she lost that way tonight. That’s kind of a hitter’s mentality, but she did what we asked her do there.”
In the last two games, the chair umpire played a substantial role in determining the outcome. On three straight points, Kowalski called the ball on her side out and Bilokin appealed all three to the chair umpire, who overturned the second one. Bilokin then had a call of her own overturned. The Duke freshman also believed that her shot at 30-all was in, but the chair umpire did not overrule Kowalski out call.
On court two, No. 33 Meible Chi led Georgia’s No. 19 Marta Gonzalez 6-2, 6-7(5), 6-5 when the sixth singles match concluded. In the second set, Chi had multiple match points from being up, but she could not put the match away.
To open the semifinal match more than three hours before, the Blue Devils (27-4) saw early deficits in the first and third doubles positions. The Bulldogs (28-1) ended up taking the first and second doubles matches to clinch the first point of the matchup.
“I thought maybe [Friday] night took a little out of us in doubles,” Ashworth said. “I think we got our legs under us a little bit and realized where we were and what we were playing for and gave it everything we could in singles.”
Looking to rebound from a loss the night before, No. 11 Mateas did not get out to the start she wanted. After losing a deciding deuce point in the first game, Georgia’s No. 2 Katarina Jokic won the first eight games of the match to go up 6-0, 2-0. The Duke freshman then responded two games to even the second set. But down 4-5 with two game points on her serve, Mateas could not convert and fell to the second-ranked player 0-6, 4-6.
With the 0-2 deficit looming on the large scoreboard next to court six, the Blue Devils were still eyeing their first match win on the night. That win came from an unlikely source, given what transpired after her singles match Friday night.
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According to NCAA.com’s Andy Katz as well as The Tennis Channel’s commentators, Chen was hospitalized after Friday’s match with dehydration and a full body cramp. She required an IV and wasn’t released until 3:45 a.m.
“The effort Kelly put in was amazing. After last night, we weren’t sure what we were going to get out of her,” Ashworth said. “We knew she would give 100 percent. We weren’t sure what that 100 percent would be. Couldn’t be prouder of that, the effort she put in to be able to come back today against a really good player.”
No. 21 Chen won the first set against No. 69 Lourdes Carle 6-2, but trailed 2-3 early in the second. The tightly contested second frame saw the score even through 10 games before Chen held serve for a 6-5 advantage. Shen then broke Carle’s serve to put the first team point on the board.
“She said just [yesterday] morning, ‘I know it’s going to be physical,’ and it was physical,” Ashworth said about Chen. “A lot of forward movement, a lot of low, slice balls that can tax your legs and back. She gave us everything she could.”
Over in the fifth singles position, senior Ellyse Hamlin, like her teammate two courts away, won the first set 6-2. The Fairfield, Conn., native then led 5-4 after holding serve, but she did not close out the match as Georgia’s Elena Christofi won a pair of games to have the opportunity to serve out the second set and send the match to a third.
Hamlin broke right back and then won the tiebreaker 8-6, which evened the match score at two-all.
On the adjacent court, senior Kaitlyn McCarthy lost the first set 3-6 to No. 72 Vivian Wolff. In the second frame, Wolff led 5-3 and looked to break McCarthy’s serve to win the match. The Cary, N.C., native held serve and then broke Wolff’s serve to even the set at 5-apiece. Two more breaks then sent the set to a tiebreaker.
In the tiebreaker, McCarthy had an early 3-1 advantage, but Wolff subsequently had two match points and led 6-4. The Duke senior saved both points and two more later on before falling 10-8 to fall in straight sets. That loss put Georgia only one singles match away from victory, and that win came in the Bilokin-Kowalski match.
Although the Blue Devils did not advance to Sunday’s final, five Duke players will remain in Orlando, Fla., for the individual portion of the NCAA Championship. Mateas, Chi and Chen are slated to compete in the singles field with Mateas earned a 9-16 seed. On the doubles side, last season’s semifinalists will reunite for the first time since early this season as classmates Hamlin and McCarthy will close out their Duke careers with one final tournament run.
“We started off the year with a bunch of individuals and came together as a good group. It’s obviously bittersweet to lose today but you get to play for a national championship, you get to be in the Final Four and you’re right there, and one point here or there makes a difference,” Ashworth said. “I think all around it was a good effort and I said in the beginning of the week, we left last year losing the Final Four hungry. Hopefully the group we have coming back is hungry to get back here and give ourselves a shot.”