ATHENS, Ga. -- Until the final several minutes of Georgia’s NCAA women’s tennis quarterfinal loss to Duke on Saturday, neither team had momentum on its side for more than a few minutes at a time.
Duke trailed 2-1 when Georgia won the doubles point and the Bulldogs’ top singles player Chelsey Gullickson cruised in straight sets, but the Blue Devils rallied to victory in three consecutive heavily contested singles matches to win 4-2 and advance to Monday’s semifinals against Florida.
“I talked with USC’s men’s coach Peter Smith and he told me it’s like a rite of passage to win an NCAA tournament match against Georgia here,” Duke coach Jamie Ashworth said. “I kept thinking about that all day. We just played a hell of a match in singles.”
But even while Duke pushed toward the clinching wins, the matches seemed to swing wildly from game to game and set to set. The Blue Devils won the first set in four of the six matches only for four matches to reach a deciding third set thanks to rallies by Georgia’s Maho Kowase, Lauren Herring and Lilly Kimbell at Nos. 3, 4 and 6 singles, respectively, while Duke’s Mary Clayton forced a third set at No. 5 after Kate Fuller won the opening set.
That’s when the Blue Devils finally began to pull away, with Duke’s Monica Turewicz beating Kimbell 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 to tie the score at 2-all, Hanna Mar defeating Kowase 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 to push Duke ahead and, finally, Rachel Kahan rallying past Georgia freshman Herring to win a third-set tiebreaker to clinch the win.
Herring led 5-3 in the third set, but Kahan won three straight games before Herring forced the tiebreaker. Kahan steadily built a lead in the tiebreaker and eventually won 7-5 to push third-seeded Duke into the semifinals with a 5-2, 3-6, 7-6 (5) victory.
“I played hesitantly and she stepped up,” Herring said. “I didn’t feel that the whole entire match I was playing well. I didn’t feel like doubles I came out and played well. I was just trying to find a way to win. I put myself in the right position and she played some good points. The momentum changed from there and it was just one or two points I felt like at the end she got.”
Despite the overall loss, Kimbell and Kowase added to their program record by winning their 22nd straight doubles match. They beat Mar and Monica Gorny 8-6 at No. 3 to claim the doubles point for Georgia after the teams split the first two matches.
But their good fortune did not carry over into singles play, as Duke ended Georgia’s season and the careers of Bulldogs seniors Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist.
“We’re really disappointed,” Georgia coach Jeff Wallace said. “We’ve got a great team and these guys are just best friends. It really hurts. They want to spend more time together, play more and it go on because they just like each other so much and they work so hard for each other for all the right reasons.”
Gullickson -- who won the NCAA singles championship in 2010, the last time the NCAA Championships were held in Athens -- and Gilchrist are not entirely finished as Georgia players, however. They will compete as a doubles tandem once team play concludes and Gullickson and Kowase will also compete in the singles draw.
Although she fought back tears throughout Saturday’s post-match press conference, Gullickson said she now must regroup and focus on her final college competition.
“All the girls were fighting from the first point of the doubles to the last point of the match,” Gullickson said. “Not to be able to play with my team again is very upsetting, but I can’t let it distract me too much. I’ve got to be set and ready to go for the individuals.”