NCAA women's tennis: Stanford advances to national championship match

There's nothing quite like two semifinal matches simultaneously coming down to the third set on the last court. When it was all said and done on Monday, the Pac-12 and SEC proved to be equal women's tennis foes in Urbana, Ill., as No. 12 Stanford upset No. 1 Florida 4-3 and No. 3 Texas A&M got past No. 7 UCLA 4-3 to set the table for Tuesday's 3 p.m. PT national championship match.


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It's looking like that epic defeat of USC on Sunday really got Stanford over the hump and into a great rhythm. After disposing of the Women of Troy and making quick work of the Georgia Lady Bulldogs, the 12th-seeded Cardinal entered Monday's semifinal round against two-time defending national champion and top-seeded Florida brimming with confidence. The Card had lost to Florida 4-2 earlier in the year, but then again, they also dropped a 6-1 decision to USC in conference play. No opponent seemed insurmountable, and the trend continued early on when Kristie Ahn and Nicole Gibbs and Stacey Tan and Ellen Tsay quickly wrapped up 8-3 victories to nab the doubles point. No nonsense with this group:

Then it was time for the No. 1 singles match everyone wanted to see: Defending NCAA singles champion Nicole Gibbs against the current top-ranked singles player in Florida's Lauren Embree. However, it turned out to be not much of a match at all-Gibbs nearly went Boatrace City on Embree, defeating the Gator 6-0, 6-1. And when Ahn defeated Sofie Oyen 6-1, 6-4, the Card found themselves up 3-0. This one was over!

But being up 3-0 in tennis isn't quite like being up 3-0 in baseball, basketball or hockey. While Gibbs and Ahn were steamrolling their competition, the Gators were building leads on the other four singles courts. Not long after Ahn pushed Florida to the brink of elimination, Brianna Morgan sat down Stacey Tan 6-1, 6-3 and Caroline Hitimana got past a first-set hiccup to trump Natalie Dillon 1-6, 6-1, 6-0. That 3-0 became 3-2 real quick, and 3-3 followed a while after once Olivia Janowicz took down Tsay (no Tsay of relief this time) in three sets, setting the stage for freshman Krista Hardebeck (Stanford) v. sophomore Alexandra Cercone (Florida), each of whom had a won a set 7-6 to lead up the end-all, be-all.

What looked to be another nailbiter of a set turned for the better for Bernard Muir and Co. when Hardebeck, who lost to Cercone in a singles match in that 4-2 Florida triumph, broke Cercone at 3-3. Holding her own serve and then getting to match point on Cercone's, Stanford's top tennis player by singles victories ended a long rally with a wonderfully placed volley deep in the corner to send Nerd Nation into celebration:


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The Bruins came into the day one step away from returning to the NCAA finals, where they beat Florida a year ago. Standing in the way of the squad headed by Stella Sampras Webster (older sister of 14-time Grand Slam singles champ Pete Sampras) was an upstart Texas A&M Aggie squad that was making its first ever appearance in the semifinals (and had earlier in the tournament made its first ever appearance in the quarterfinal round). Despite reaching new program heights, the Aggies didn't shy away from the limelight, even when faced with a 3-1 hole. The Bruins had to work a little bit but won both doubles matches: The duos of Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton and Catherine Harrison and Kyle McPhillips gave the Bruins the doubles point. McPhillips, the 20th-ranked singles player in the country, put UCLA on the brink of the finals after a not-so-close 2-6, 6-0, 6-1 three-set defeat of Cristina Stancu, but the Aggies quickly evened things up with two-set decisions from Stefania Hristov and Nazari Urbina to send it to court 4.

Down a set, Chanelle Van Nguyen fought back to take a long deuce set off Ines Deheza (whose twin sister Paula equals as her doubles partner). That brought it down to the all decisive third set, a set that did not start off to Van Nguyen's liking after getting down a break 2-0. But, showing off that grit she displayed in the second set, Van Nguyen broke Deheza back twice in a row to take a 4-2 lead. With the serve and a triple-game point, it looked like Van Nguyen had finally worn out Deheza, but the frosh from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, roared back for the fourth break in seven games. That proved to be the turning point, and while Van Nguyen nearly fought back from a triple match point, Deheza claimed the third set 6-4, continuing the Aggies' postseason theme of stepping into further uncharted territory by ripping a forehand deep in the corner of which Van Nguyen could only get a piece.

The SEC/Pac-12 debate will have to wait one more day.

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