NCAA women's tennis: UCLA advances to finals; Stanford out

UCLA Athletics

Monday’s NCAA women’s tennis semifinals seemed wide open heading into the day. With the top-4 seeds all eliminated in the quarterfinals, fifth-seeded UCLA rose to the top of the food chain while No. 11 Stanford was still holding strong as the tournament’s “Cinderella” (if you can call a 17-time champ that). The Pac-12 schools ended up splitting the day, with UCLA defeating Florida and Stanford losing a hard-fought match with North Carolina to set up Tuesday’s championship tilt between the Bruins and Tar Heels at 10 a.m. PT.

UCLA

The last couple of rounds of the NCAA women’s tennis championships have been somewhat of a revenge tour for UCLA. After losing to Duke in the USTA/ITA National Team Indoor Championships in February 4-3, the Bruins eliminated the Blue Devils in the quarterfinals 4-2. This set up a semifinal clash with eighth-seeded Florida, the team that defeated the Bruins for the 2012 NCAA title. And, like Saturday, UCLA was able to erase some ghosts of losses past, nixing Florida 4-0 in a match that was much closer than the final tally indicates.

Not a whole lot came easy for Stella Sampras Webster’s crew Monday afternoon in Athens. Take doubles, for instance. Yes, the Bruins took a 1-0 lead but had to do so by winning two of the three courts on tiebreakers. We wouldn’t be able to move on to singles until the top-ranked tandem of Robin Anderson and Jennifer Brady took No. 1 doubles 8-7 (5) over the unranked duo of Alexandra Cercone and Kourtney Keegan. This came on the heels of Catherine Harrison and Kyle McPhillips edging out Sofie Oyen and Belinda Woolcock by the exact same score.

 

With higher-ranked players in five of the six singles matches, UCLA appeared to have a solid edge over the Gators in the singles battles. The fact that Anderson and Brady handily won two-setters to put the Bruins up 3-0 only reinforced that notion. But this Gator team absolutely REFUSED to go away on courts three through six, digging out of holes and fending off match points. The Bruins appeared to be on the verge of clinching the match for a while, but Florida’s Cercone fought her way into a second-set tiebreaker with Chanelle Van Nguyen and Woolcock, on the verge of elimination, stormed back to force a third set on No. 5 against Harrison.

Instead, the clincher came from No. 6 singles, where Kaitlin Ray eventually defeated Keegan in three sets (6-3, 3-6, 6-2) to push the Bruins into the finals for the second time in three seasons. After what must have seemed like an eternity to UCLA fans, the Bruins were finally through to the final two. With the win, UCLA improves its record to 26-2 while Florida, denied of a 14th trip to the finals, wraps up the 2014 campaign with a 23-6 mark. Monday’s 4-0 victory marked the fourth time in five NCAA postseason matches that the Bruins have shutout their opponent.

 

[Related: NCAA women's tennis: Stanford and UCLA move on to semis]

Stanford

Stanford finally met its postseason match Monday, falling to the seventh-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels 4-3 after UNC’s Jamie Loeb outlasted Stanford’s Kristie Ahn in a battle of two of the top three players in the ITA rankings. Stanford wraps up the 2014 campaign with a 20-3 record, while North Carolina posted its NCAA-leading 29th win of the year (29-5).

The Cardinal dug itself an early hole by dropping the doubles point to the Tar Heels. Recently inserted into the doubles lineup, Krista Hardebeck joined forces with Caroline Doyle to notch an 8-4 victory on No. 3 doubles over Ashley Dai and Tessa Lyons, but Stanford would lose on the top-two courts 8-5 and 8-2, respectively (Stanford’s Ahn and Carol Zhao lost the last six games on court one), to fall behind 1-0.

Seeing as the Cardinal was 5-2 in the last five years of the NCAA tournament when losing the doubles point heading into Monday, however, this was far from over. Once singles play got going, it quickly became clear that this was headed to a showdown at No. 1 singles. North Carolina controlled two and three, taking a 3-1 lead after Caroline Price defeated Zhao 6-4, 6-4 on No. 3. No matter for the Card, though, because courts four through six were landmarked by Nerd Nation. Caroline Doyle notched a 6-2, 6-3 victory on six for her fifth NCAA victory in as many tries, making it 3-2 UNC, while Ellen Tsay provided another Tsay of relief for the Card on court five by taking a two-setter (with the second set going to a tiebreaker) over Kate Vialle to even things up at 3-3 and turn all eyes in the direction of No. 1.

[Related: NCAA women's tennis: Stanford and UCLA advance to quarterfinals]

Freshman Jamie Loeb, as her No. 1 ranking would suggest, is not bad at this sport. She entered Monday with a 49-2 singles record and had not lost a match since February. On the other side of the net was the third-ranked Ahn, a senior who had lost rather handily in two sets to Loeb (6-2, 6-1) in October. When Ahn won an exhilarating first set 7-6 (4), it was the first time Loeb had dropped a set since March 9. It appeared that we were on track for an all-timer…

…And then Loeb kicked it into another gear. Tearing the cover off the ball, Loeb ripped off 12 straight games over the last two sets to earn a 6-7 (4), 6-0, 6-0 victory over Ahn and send North Carolina to the championship round.

 

‘Tisn’t the last we have seen of Stanford in Athens this year, however, as the full singles lineup will be competing in the NCAA singles draw while Ahn and Zhao will compete in the doubles tournament.

 

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