In a Friday evening thriller under the bright lights in Champaign, Ill., Duke defeated in-state rival N.C. State to secure its spot in the Final Four.
With the sensational 4-3 victory, the third-seeded Blue Devils improved their record to 23-3 and now sit just two wins away from a national title. Senior Kelly Chen clinched the victory, bouncing back after losing the first set in a tiebreaker to take the next two sets and send the Blue Devils to a Saturday evening showdown with No. 2-seed Oklahoma.
The Elite Eight matchup was tightly contested from the get-go. N.C. State drew first blood, as junior Chloe Beck and freshman Elie Coleman fell to Amelia Rajecki and Abigail Rencheli 2-6. But Duke would not go quietly, as Georgia Drummy and Karolina Berankova fought to a 5-2 lead against Jaeda Daniel and Nell Miller before the N.C. State duo rattled off two straight games to pull the score to 5-4. Here, Duke's senior-sophomore pairing proved too much for the Wolfpack to handle, winning four straight points to notch a 6-4 victory.
The doubles point would come down to the No. 3 match, where senior Margaryta Bilokin and graduate student Eliza Omirou battled to a 5-3 lead and a 40-15 game score as their teammates watched courtside. The Wolfpack then saved two match points to force deuce—meaning the next point would win the game due to the no-ad scoring format. With the pressure on and two chances to put the first point on the scoreboard already down the drain, Bilokin and Omirou came through in the clutch and won the set 6-3 to give Duke a 1-0 lead.
"The doubles was massive for us," said head coach Jamie Ashworth. "I don’t think a lot of people thought we would win the doubles point against them. We upset the No. 1 doubles team in the country at one doubles, and I think we did a great job of keeping our composure in the big points, playing aggressive but playing composed and playing with belief. We had a group on the court there that knew we could win the doubles point, weren’t hoping to win the doubles point but knew we could win the doubles point."
The clinching win in doubles underscores the importance of the deuce point in the NCAA tournament. Since whoever wins the point wins the game, 40-40 is the moment of maximum tension, the true test of who can perform effectively when it matters most. Duke played well at deuce in both the doubles and singles against the Wolfpack.
"In those deuce points you’ve got to stay true to what you’re doing, you got to make first serves and you got to make returns," said Ashworth. "We’ve talked about that all year, about making first serves and making returns. I thought when we needed to do it we did it. I thought that we executed those simple things that you work on every day really well in those pressure situations."
The Blue Devils would take a 1-0 lead into the singles, but N.C. State quickly evened the scoreline at 1-1 as freshman Emma Jackson lost in straight sets to Priska Nugroho. Drummy and Beck both found themselves down 0-4 in their opening sets, and it was beginning to look like Duke might be unable to back up the doubles point with the three singles victories needed to clinch the match.
Both Drummy and Beck, however, would turn their matches around. The senior from Ireland fought back to take the first set 7-5 before taking care of business in the second set 6-2. After Beck lost the first set 6-1, she flipped the script and won the second by the same score before clawing her way to a 5-3 lead in the third set.
The junior from Georgia would lose three straight match points in the following game, however, and the score moved to 5-4. Here, Beck won the deuce point to secure the comeback victory and give Duke a 3-1 lead against the Wolfpack.
"I think there’s just full belief and full trust in each other," said Ashworth. "They believe in themselves and they believe in their teammates, they trust themselves and they trust their teammates no matter what the score, no matter what the situation. I think that losing a first set or being down in the first set there, it just keeps building, and we’ve done a good job of withstanding that all year."
Duke was now just one win away from the Final Four with three matches still underway. N.C. State was not giving up easily, however, as Rajecki beat freshman Ellie Coleman in three sets to cut Duke's lead to 3-2.
Both Duke players whose matches were still in progress had lost the first set, won the second and were battling hard in the third. Omirou lost the first set 5-7, won the second 6-4 and twice served for the match in the third at 5-4 and 6-5 but lost both games. The graduate student from Cyprus lost the third-set tiebreaker to give N.C. State its third point of the match.
That left the two sides all square at three apiece with Chen the only Blue Devil left on the court. The senior had split sets with Miller but held a commanding 5-1 lead in the third. Despite a 40-0 lead in the game, Chen lost four straight match points to bring the score to 5-2. The next game, however, would be the clincher for the Blue Devils as a netball from Miller gave Chen the win and sent Duke to the Final Four.
The dramatic victory is but the latest chapter in a storybook season for the Blue Devils, who already have a conference title to their name. What's more, if Duke can overcome Oklahoma in Saturday's semifinal, it could potentially face archrival North Carolina in the championship match Sunday.
The Blue Devils and Sooners meet Saturday at 8 p.m. with a chance to advance to Sunday's title match.
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