Just as the ball bounces back and forth on the court, so did the momentum of Duke’s Final Four match against Oklahoma.
However, every slight edge there was to take, the Sooners took, and in the most crucial battles, they proved ready to fight, ultimately sending Duke home with its championship dreams cut short.
In rainy Champaign, Ill., Saturday evening, the third-seeded Blue Devils took the court indoors against No. 2-seed Oklahoma, a team they had lost to in January during their nonconference slate. After losing the doubles point and securing three singles points, it all came down to court six. There, Duke graduate student Eliza Omirou faced Sooner freshman Emma Staker. Though she lost the first set in a bagel, Omirou rallied to take the second set 7-5. However, she couldn’t keep the momentum going, and another 6-0 set ended Duke’s season with a 4-3 loss.
“It's tough to win four singles matches against a team that's top-two, three, four in the country all year, and I think that we fought our butts off and gave ourselves some chances,” head coach Jamie Ashworth said after the match. “[Omirou] gave us an opportunity to keep competing, and I thought we did a really good job with the singles, to be honest with you, and just came up against a team that played better than us today.”
With both junior Chloe Beck and freshman Ellie Coleman yielding to their opponents relatively quickly, the Sooners needed just one of the remaining Blue Devils—Omirou and senior Kelly Chen—to lose their match. Having been overwhelmed by Staker in the first set, it seemed that Omirou would do so quickly. The Cyprus native was a late addition to the singles lineup, replacing senior Margaryta Bilokin, and had only played a handful of singles matches this year before being tasked with carrying on the Blue Devils’ season.
However, some seesawing play in the second set saw Omirou and Staker tied 3-3, and when Omirou got the break to go up 4-3 and again two games later to go up 5-4, Duke looked to have a shot. A series of errors let Staker tie it at 5-5, but Omirou stayed calm and collected, keeping it conservative until she found an opportunity and broke to take a 6-5 lead.
At 40-40 set point, Omirou looked in complete control, making Staker race back and forth until fatigue got the best of her, and a desperate return set up Omirou perfectly to take the set.
That was the end of the road, though, as Staker came back in the third set with a vengeance. Chen, in vintage form, came in clutch in her second set, winning 7-5 after taking the first 6-3 to get a third point on the board for the Blue Devils. Just like that, Omirou and Staker were the last pair still playing, but Staker quickly took a 2-0 lead. Then, after going up 30-0 in the third game, Omirou conceded five straight points to fall behind three games, and errors and nerves set in. She would go on to win just two more points across the final three games of Duke's season.
'It's not an easy position that [Omirou] was put in the last couple of days," Ashworth said. "But at the same time, that's what you work for in practice…. And I knew that she would fight, I knew that she would compete. And it's a heck of an effort the last few days that she had here in Champaign to give us what we needed and to give us that chance to keep playing, and I couldn't be prouder of what she's done."
Earlier in the night, Omirou and her doubles partner Bilokin formed the bright spot in a perplexing doubles slate, as the veterans in the third pairing were the only Blue Devils to come out on top. They easily defeated the duo of Staker and sophomore Dana Guzman 6-2, with Bilokin hitting a laser directly at Staker to seal the match.
For Duke’s other two pairs, things didn’t go quite as well. The top pairing of senior Georgia Drummy and sophomore Karolina Berankova faced an early 4-1 deficit but clawed its way back to get within one. Even in that rally though, the duo didn’t look to have things figured out against sisters Carmen and Ivana Corley, and they gave up two games in a row, falling 6-3.
Meanwhile, Coleman and Beck, playing close to the net and aggressive, held most of the power in their matchup, forcing senior Alexandra Pisareva and junior Layne Sleeth to work for every point and making clutch plays to tie at 5-5. However, a string of unforced errors left the Blue Devils without the doubles point.
"I thought today we really put ourselves in a position to win the doubles point and it was tough. They played a little bit better when they needed to, in the doubles," Ashworth said.
After losing the doubles point, there was still a path to victory for the Blue Devils, with Drummy dominating her first set against Carmen Corley 6-0. The Dublin, Ireland native, who had beaten her same Sooner counterpart 6-0, 6-0 in the teams’ regular-season meeting, then took the first game of the second set to bring her streak to 19 games. Though the Oklahoma junior eventually got on the board against Drummy, the Blue Devil still took the second set 7-5 with relative ease, getting Duke its first point.
On court three, freshman Emma Jackson faced Ivana Corley. After going up 6-5 in the first set, Jackson navigated a tough lob to set up set point and took care of business to win the set 7-5. In the second set, she won five straight games to rally from a 3-0 deficit, proving her never-quit spirit once again. Though her opponent grabbed one more game, Jackson secured Duke’s second point of the night after a tough shot forced a wide return.
“She's definitely grown as a person,” Ashworth said of Jackson’s season. “I know that she was disappointed with how she played yesterday. But knowing Emma and knowing the kind of pattern that she's had all season, I wasn't worried about her at all. And I knew she would bounce back and have a great match.”
Now, after a heartbreaking end to an outstanding season, the Blue Devils have a lot to look forward to. With players like Jackson working their way up the ladder and Drummy returning with her extra year of eligibility, there’s sure to be more success in Duke’s future, despite the current anguish.
“There's 200-whatever, 260 Division I teams, and there are four left, and they gave themselves a chance,” Ashworth said. “They grew and they got better. And they became better as individuals, and became a better team along the way. So, we couldn't be prouder of the effort that they put in.”
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.