By Jeff Owens | Photos courtesy of USTA
ORLANDO — South Carolina’s record-setting season came to a disappointing end Friday night as the Gamecocks fell to Duke, 4-1, in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
The Gamecocks, who won the SEC Tournament and were the No. 4 national seed entering the tournament, finished the season 23-4, the most wins since 1987.
“It’s too bad. It probably hasn’t sunk in yet,” head coach Kevin Epley said after the match, which ended about 12:30 a.m. at the USTA National Campus in Orlando.
The match with No. 5 Duke started about 90 minutes late after the other quarterfinal match between Georgia and Vanderbilt (Georgia won 4-3) ran long.
South Carolina fell behind early, losing the doubles point and then dropping three of the four singles matches that were completed. The match ended when senior Rachel Rohrabacher fell 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 to Margaryta Bilokin at No. 6 singles. Silvia Chinellato was up 2-0 in the third set and Mia Horvit trailed 2-3 in the third set when the match ended.
“Silvia was playing great and the girl at 5 for Duke is really strong,” Epley said. “It’s too bad for Rachel, a senior; that is a really tough way to go out. She fought hard.
“Overall, Duke played very well. They are one of the strongest teams we have played all year. It was an epic match and we fought them to the end. Credit both teams with going the distance.”
South Carolina fell behind early when Duke took the doubles point. No. 1 doubles tandem Ingrid Martins and Horvit, who were ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point this season, lost 6-3 to Kelly Chen and Ellyse Hamlin, while Chinellato and Paige Cline fell 6-2 to Meible Chi and Kaitlyn McCarthy. Rohrabacher and Meg Davies were down 4-5 when Duke clinched the doubles point.
“There were a couple of little details in the doubles that could have made the difference because I really felt like Sylvia was going to win [in singles] and the girl playing Mia was [wearing down],” Epley said. “I think that would have been the difference, getting that doubles point. We just didn’t do what we needed to do to get it done.”
Duke took a 2-0 lead when Cline lost to Chi at No. 2 singles, 7-5, 6-0. But Martins, the No. 4-ranked singles player in the country, got South Carolina on the board with a dominant performance, winning 6-2, 6-1 over Maria Mateas.
When Davies lost 6-1, 6-3 to McCarthy at No. 4 singles, Duke had a 3-1 lead but South Carolina refused to go down without a fight and took the other three singles matches to third sets. Chinellato lost her first set in a 7-6 tiebreaker but battled back to win the second set 6-4 against Hamlin. Horvit lost her first set 6-2, but won the second 7-5 to force a third set against Chen. Rohrabacher won her first set 6-3 before falling 7-5 and then 6-2.
“I’m proud of the way we fought today,” Epley said. “We fought really hard. We normally pull through in these close matches and we were real, real close today.”
South Carolina climbed as high as No. 3 in the national rankings during the regular season and finished second in the SEC at 12-1. The Gamecocks then beat three straight top-10 teams, including No. 1 Georgia, to win the SEC Tournament. They rolled over North Florida 4-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and beat Virginia 4-1 in the second round.
South Carolina advanced to the Elite Eight for just the third time in program history with a dominant 4-0 win over No. 13 Southern California in the Sweet 16.
“I’m not going to take anything from these girls. They fought their butts off. They did that all season,” Epley said. “It’s been an epic year. Obviously, right after a loss it’s hard to reflect on that, but when we get a few days under our belt we can look back at the season and be proud of what we did.”