To cap off their third straight perfect season at home, the Blue Devils went through a team that had never been to the Sweet 16 before.
In front of a packed Ambler Tennis Stadium Friday evening, No. 5 seed Duke stormed past No. 12 seed N.C. State 4-0 to punch its ticket to Orlando, Fla., for the Elite Eight. With already a win this season under their belt, the Blue Devils continued their home dominance and gave seniors Kaitlyn McCarthy and Ellyse Hamlin one final home victory.
“They had more family here than they’ve had because of graduation and maybe playing in front of some people in their family that they’ve haven’t played in front of before,” Duke head coach Jamie Ashworth said about his two seniors. “They did a good job of putting all of the emotions of having graduation this weekend aside and taking care what we needed to have them take off.”
The Wolfpack (24-7) jumped out to an early lead on the doubles side as the visiting No. 7 pair of Anna Rogers and Alana Smith took the top court 6-2 against the Blue Devil No. 47 tandem of Hamlin and sophomore Kelly Chen.
But that deficit was short lived as the second and third doubles courts saw Duke (26-3) victories. On Court 2, the No. 24 Duke duo of McCarthy and junior Meible Chi closed out a 6-4 win against Adriana Reami and Claudia Wiktorin. The Blue Devil pairing jumped out to a 2-1 lead, which quickly turned to 4-2. They won 6-3.
The coveted doubles point came down to two freshmen in Maria Mateas and Margaryta Bilokin. The first-year combo took on N.C. State’s Bianca Moldovan and Liz Norman and quickly got out to a 4-1 lead before they clinched the point with a 6-3 set victory.
“We came out and established ourselves in the first couple of games of the doubles,” Ashworth said. “I thought that our movement was good. I thought that our energy was good. It’s always a great sign when you can look across the courts and we won the first game on every court.”
While the doubles point came down to the final court, the singles matches followed a starkly different pattern.
The match turned from being a question of if the Blue Devils were going to advance to their second consecutive Elite 8 to when and who would win the clinching point.
On court two, No. 33 Chi broke Smith’s serve early in the first set and saw a 4-1 advantage turn to 6-2. In the second frame, Chi and Smith split the opening four games until the Duke junior took control of the set the rest of the way for a 6-2 second-set victory.
“She played really true to her game the entire match and it was great to see,” Ashworth said of Chi. “She played with a lot of energy. She played smart.”
After Chi registered the second Blue Devil point, McCarthy was next in line to put her team up 3-0. The Cary, N.C., native won the first set 6-3 against Norman. The N.C. State sophomore won the first game of the second set before McCarthy responded with three games in a row. McCarthy closed out win No. 21 6-3.
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It then looked as though Hamlin would be the one to clinch the dual match. The Fairfield, Conn., native trailed 4-3 in the first set before she won the final three games against Moldovan. The score in the second set was even through two games and the third game came down to a deuce point to decide which ACC player would have the early second-set advantage. That point, as well as the next four games were won by Hamlin.
Up 5-1, Hamlin was unable to close out the next game as Moldovan won the next game to begin a potential comeback. But before the Duke senior could win the match or a comeback could be realized, Hamlin’s doubles partner came through with the match-clinching victory.
No. 21 Chen’s 3-1 opening set lead follow a similar trajectory to her teammates as the sun began to set. After winning the first set 6-3, the Cerritos, Calif., native shot out to a 3-0 advantage. But Reami, on the other side of the Court 3 net, did not give in and let Chen breeze through to a win. Reami won three out of the next four games and put herself in a position to even the set on a deciding deuce point down 3-4.
Chen responded by winning that deuce point to take the 5-3 advantage. Reami broke Chen right back to bring the set score to 5-4. Then Chen set herself up with a match point after she won the first three points of Reami’s service game.
On match point, Reami served to Chen’s backhand and Chen hit the first of four-consecutive backhand cross-court shots. With Reami only recovering after her last backhand to the middle of the ad court side of baseline, Chen hit a deep backhand down the line and all Reami could do was attempt to prolong the point. The forehand shot on the run went wide as Chen clinched the trip to the Elite 8.
“She played better than she’s been playing,” Ashworth said of Chen, who was disappointed with her play last weekend. “We had a good crowd and Kelly plays to that crowd. The bigger the moment, the bigger Kelly becomes and that definitely showed.”
Besides Hamlin on Court 5, No. 11 Mateas and Bilokin both did not finish out their singles matches. Bilokin was up 6-3, 4-1 and Mateas was winning the second set 1-0 after she fell short in a first tiebreaker 2-7.
“We have to have that mindset of going out there and trying to win that match 7-0 and not relying on your teammates to do it for you,” Ashworth said. “We have that confidence, belief and trust in each other that if I can’t finish, someone else is going to finish.”
The Blue Devils will face fourth-seeded South Carolina May 17 in Orlando, Fla. The final three rounds of the NCAA Tournament will be played on consecutive days at the USTA National Campus. Ashworth said the team will focus in the few practices remaining on continuing what they’ve been working on all season long.
“Orlando will be a great atmosphere,” Ashworth said. “I told them after the match there’s 300-somewhat Division I teams and we’re one of eight that are going to have a shot so let’s go down there and give it everything we have and see what happens."