With just one match to play in Saturday evening’s Final Four showdown in Champaign, Ill., and Duke locked in a 3-3 tie with Oklahoma, the Blue Devils found themselves in familiar territory.
One night earlier, it took a classic Kelly Chen clincher for Duke to keep its season alive. In April, freshman Emma Jackson delivered the Blue Devils to the brink of an ACC title with the deciding match in the conference semifinals. Just a week before that, Chen had held on in singles to unseat undefeated North Carolina on the final night of the regular season, kicking off Duke’s remarkable run in earnest.
But as the final set came to an end on court six Saturday, it was the Sooners who mobbed the court, surrounding freshman hero Emma Staker in celebration. Across the net, the Blue Devils gently crowded around graduate student Eliza Omirou, who had come just one set away from sending Duke to its third-ever NCAA title match.
The magic, just a moment too early, had finally run out for this Blue Devil team.
“Couldn’t be happier for them,” Ashworth said of his team after the match. “It’s hard in this moment for them to understand that, but it’s a team that put two banners up there back at Duke, and should be really proud of that.”
In hindsight, the Blue Devils—who carried a 12-match winning streak spanning nearly two months into Saturday’s fateful showdown—do have plenty to be proud of entering the offseason, beginning with what was a valiant comeback effort against the Sooners. After dropping a hard-fought doubles point to start the match and dropping three first sets on the singles side, Oklahoma held all the cards early on.
Searching for an edge, the Blue Devils nearly got it on court one from junior Chloe Beck, who fought back after dropping the first set 6-0 to take control in the second. On court five, freshman Ellie Coleman came storming back in the second set in a furious attempt to force a third, but Sooner star Layne Sleeth came back to finish off Beck while Coleman’s comeback bid against senior Alexandra Pisareva fell just short.
Omirou fought to give Duke the chance it needed, though, rebounding from a shutout first set to force a decisive third set for all the marbles. The rest is history, but the Blue Devils had a real shot after playing from their heels all evening long.
“They gave us a great opportunity, a great ride,” Ashworth said of his team. “And I told them after, from where I stand as a spectator a lot of times, it was great to see how much they developed and great to see how much better we got over the course of the year.”
Duke did appear to improve mightily throughout the year, flipping a switch after a pair of losses to Florida State and Miami in late March. That team, still too early in conference play to judge, didn’t yet resemble the juggernaut it would become on its journey to Champaign.
Prior to Saturday, the Blue Devils hadn’t lost since that Sunshine State road trip. Their season featured a conference championship and a Final Four appearance, with these Blue Devils realizing their potential to an extent that didn’t seem possible in March.
“There were a lot of questions that needed to be answered about our team and they took it upon themselves and challenged themselves and really responded to that adversity,” Ashworth said. “They could have gone two ways with it, and I’ve told them over and over again that they chose the tougher path, and they were able to reap the rewards of that path.”
Duke’s stellar spring hinged on success on the doubles side, with the crucial early point often proving all-important late in the season. That charge was led by Omirou and senior Margaryta Bilokin—a pairing that Ashworth called “a team that we never envisioned playing together”—who grew into Duke’s most reliable doubles duo in April and May. After dropping four straight sets mid-season, Omirou and Bilokin haven’t lost together since April 1, rattling off 11 wins in that span.
The two veterans did their part Saturday, making short work of Oklahoma’s Staker and Dana Guzman in a 6-2 win. Omirou, who notably has seldom played singles for Duke, couldn’t seal the deal later on, but she did what the Blue Devils have so often been able to rely on her to do by giving her team a chance at the doubles point.
“They’ve been playing really good doubles,” Ashworth said of Bilokin and Omirou. “When [Bilokin] can control the court with her forehand and mix in some lobs, and [Omirou] is really effective at the net, and I thought they played well, and they played smart, and we’ve kind of leaned on them the last couple matches to come up big for us. And they’ve done a good job with that.”
It’s nearly impossible to reflect on Duke’s season, of course, without mentioning the resurgence and ever-growing legend of Chen. The senior put together a remarkable run down the stretch, highlighted by her Senior Night takedown of North Carolina and shining moment in Friday night’s Elite Eight win against the Wolfpack.
At every juncture, it seemed like business as usual for Chen, who has made a career at Duke out of clutch moments. She got one final big moment Saturday, and while it didn’t tip the scales in Duke’s favor, she came through, as always.
“I mean, this is the time that [Chen] cherishes and works for and really has shined in throughout her career,” Ashworth said. “And win or lose, she’s someone that you want in those moments…. Tennis is such an individual sport, it’s rare to get someone that really cherishes that team stuff.”
It’s difficult to believe, looking back down from the heights Duke reached, that these Blue Devils were ever underdogs. But before they put the Tar Heels on notice, before they marched their way to a conference title and before they punched their ticket to Champaign, they had to come a long way.
Before it was all said and done, the Blue Devils proved themselves to be a special team—magical, if you will. And although that magic ran out a moment shy of greatness, it was a magical ride nonetheless.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.