GARY ANDERSON overcame a stiff test from Elliot Milk as he began his defence of the Dafabet US Darts Masters title with a hard-fought win in Las Vegas on Thursday, setting up a tasty quarter-final with Gerwyn Price.
Scottish star Anderson went all the way to glory in the PDC World Series of Darts event at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino 12 months ago, and is aiming to scoop the £20,000 title on Friday.
However, he had to come from two legs down against qualifier Milk - a prison warden from South Dakota - before booking his spot in the quarter-finals.
Milk was also level with Anderson after six legs, but the Scot produced a key 92 finish in leg seven before closing out a 6-4 victory in his first appearance since winning the World Cup a month ago.
"It's been a while since I played so I'm relieved to get through," said the two-time World Champion. "It was a bit nervy and there were some good darts and some terrible darts.
"Elliot played well and he was up for it, so I'm glad to scrape through."
The tournament concludes with the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final on Friday, with Anderson's tie against Price being their first meeting since the Welshman won last year's controversial Grand Slam of Darts final.
"Gerwyn's playing well so I need to score better than I did today," added Anderson. "I'm a bit rusty but I've got to work through it because it's a big day on Friday."
Price battled past former UK Open finalist Gary Mawson with a 6-4 victory to erase the memories of his 2018 exit to Dawson Murschell.
The Welshman found himself 2-1 down early on as the prospect of another early exit loomed on the horizon, but three legs in a row gave Price a 4-2 cushion.
Mawson battled back to level - capitalising on five missed doubles in leg seven - but Price landed double 12 to claim leg nine and opened the tenth with five perfect darts before tops secured the win.
"I lost here in the first round last year and I really wanted to win here more than ever," admitted Price. "I was a bit edgy.
"I wasn't at my best but I got through and I can prepare for tomorrow now."
World Champion Michael van Gerwen was also a 6-4 winner, as he held off a spirited fightback from experienced American Darin Young.
Van Gerwen stormed into a 3-0 lead before two missed doubles allowed Young in to finish 105 as he got off the mark.
The left-hander also took out 76 and a 14-darter before landing tops to level after eight legs and threaten a huge upset against the 2017 US Darts Masters champion.
Van Gerwen, though, took a key ninth leg with a 78 finish before hitting tops himself to confirm a quarter-final place.
"I think I played okay, especially at the beginning of the game, but then I missed some doubles in the fourth leg and I was a little bit inconsistent," said Van Gerwen.
"I want to get my title back and I will have to play good darts on Friday, but I'm feeling good. It's always nice playing in venues like Mandalay Bay and I want to win this tournament."
Van Gerwen now takes on Michael Smith, who overcame some nervous moments before seeing off Canadian ace Jim Long 6-4 to book his place in the last eight.
World Cup representative Long took the opening leg with a confidence-boosting 84 finish, and checked out 63 to level in leg four after Smith had got his challenge underway with back-to-back legs.
Smith produced finishes of 126 and 131 as he opened up a 5-3 cushion, with Long hitting back in leg nine but unable to prevent the World Championship finalist from sealing victory.
"To get over the winning line was the main thing and it's nice to get through," said Smith. "I knew I had a tough game but the 126 saved me and I kept hold of the lead from there.
"I know my game is there but I'm trying to force it at the moment. Form can change from day to do and tomorrow's a different day."
2018 US Darts Masters finalist Rob Cross produced a high-quality opening to his challenge this time around with a 6-0 whitewash of big-stage debutant Leonard Gates.
Cross raced through the opening five legs without allowing Gates a dart at a double, and when the Texas-based ace missed a chance on double 16 in the sixth, the world number two closed out victory on double ten.
"I'm happy with my performance," said Cross, who averaged over 101. "My finishing early on took the game away from him but he'll be better for that stage experience.
"I've had some time off recently so I wasn't sure how I was going to play and I was nervous today, but I'll be better on Friday."
Nathan Aspinall enjoyed a winning World Series of Darts debut with a 6-2 defeat of Canadian qualifier Shawn Brenneman to set up a tasty quarter-final with Cross.
Aspinall took command early on by opening up a 3-1 lead, and landed a 121 finish between Brenneman's two winning legs, but the UK Open champion closed out a strong win with six doubles from 11 attempts.
"I'm a happy man," said Aspinall. "I loved it - I had a few nerves beforehand but once I got on stage I felt at home and it was a steady performance.
"I didn't know how Shawn would play but I played a solid game and came through. I'm loving being here and it's a dream come true - and I don't want it to end."
2017 US Darts Masters runner-up Daryl Gurney began his bid to go one better this time around with a strong 6-1 win over big-stage debutant Daniel Baggish.
A flying start saw Gurney open up a 3-0 lead before capitalising on seven misses from Baggish to claim the fourth leg.
Baggish landed a 174 score before finishing 87 to hit back, but a 116 checkout restored Gurneys finish before tops booked his quarter-final spot.
"I'm pleased with that," said Gurney. "People were telling me that I'd drawn the most consistent player from the qualifiers, so I knew he was a good player.
"He was one of the dangers and I wasn't going to take him lightly. I was lucky in a couple of legs but it was a good win."
The number three seed now plays Peter Wright, who avoided an upset against Canada's Jeff Smith by edging a tight 11-leg contest.
Smith, the 2018 North American Championship winner, produced some outstanding finishing to lead 1-0 and 4-3, including combinations of 88 on the bull, 106 and 126.
Wright landed tops in leg eight to level and finished 81 to move ahead, only for six missed match darts to allow Smith in on double 16 to maintain his flawless finishing record and take the game to a decider.
The World Cup winner, though, was first to a finish and took out 67 to finally complete a hard-fought win.
"We all know Jeff is a good player, so I knew it was going to be tough when the draw came out," said Wright. "His finishing is excellent but he didn't score as well today and he let me in.
"I felt confident anyway and I wasn't worried - I always felt I would win."
The Dafabet US Darts Masters will conclude on Friday, with the quarter-finals being followed by the semi-finals and final at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.
Watch through DAZN in the USA, Canada and Brazil and through ITV4 in the UK, as well as through the PDC's worldwide broadcast partners.
Dafabet US Darts Masters
Thursday July 4
Gerwyn Price 6-4 Gary Mawson
Nathan Aspinall 6-2 Shawn Brenneman
Daryl Gurney 6-1 Daniel Baggish
Michael Smith 6-4 Jim Long
Rob Cross 6-0 Leonard Gates
Gary Anderson 6-4 Elliot Milk
Peter Wright 6-5 Jeff Smith
Michael van Gerwen 6-4 Darin Young
All games best of 11 legs
Friday July 5 (1200 local time)
Michael van Gerwen v Michael Smith
Gary Anderson v Gerwyn Price
Rob Cross v Nathan Aspinall
Daryl Gurney v Peter Wright
All games best of 15 legs
How To Watch
UK: ITV4 from 1945 BST
USA, Canada, Brazil: DAZN
PDCTV-HD Worldwide Subscribers: video.pdc.tv
The US Darts Masters will also be shown through the PDC's broadcast partners across the world.