UCLA women defeat Duke to claim Final Four berth

May 23, 2011 05:51 AM
By Colette Lewis, special to USTA.com

STANFORD, Calif. -- Sixth-seeded UCLA had revenge on its mind when taking the courts against No. 3 Duke Sunday in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I Team Championships.
The Bruins were sent home by the Blue Devils in the round of 16 last year, with UCLA’s Noelle Hickey losing the fourth point in Duke’s 4-2 win.
On a cool and cloudy day on the Stanford University campus, Hickey erased that bad memory, taking the final point in a 4-2 upset that put the Bruins in the semifinals for the first time since their title run in 2008.
"Andrea (Remynse) and I were on the court in the same exact scenario – same team, same positions," said Hickey, a senior from New Jersey. "I lost it last time 6 in the third, and I just did not want that to happen again. It was definitely on my mind, but I guess maybe senior year changed everything up."
UCLA had taken the doubles point, but Duke had already proven they could win four singles matches in their round-of-16 victory over Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils got wins from Rachel Kahan at No. 5 and Mary Clayton at No. 6, while the Bruins’ McCall Jones took a point at No. 1, and Pam Montez earned their third point with a win at No. 4.
Hickey had lost the second set to Duke senior Ellah Nze, admitting she felt "a little bit of panic" when she dropped the opening game of the third set.
"I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that the girls needed me to definitely fight and to hopefully win," Hickey said. "Then I went up 2-1 and led the whole time, but she was right on my tail, playing hard and fighting. But I knew that if I made her work, I knew that nerves were going to creep in."
Serving at 2-3, Nze saved one break point but not the second, double faulting to give Hickey a 4-2 lead. Hickey’s pace was forcing errors from Nze, and Hickey kept attacking from the baseline. With Remynse down 4-1 in the third set to Duke’s Reka Zsilinszka at No. 3, Hickey knew her point was vital. Nze had three game points, serving at 5-2, but another untimely double fault cost her, and two backhand errors later, Hickey had claimed a 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-2 victory.
"It was nice to see our three seniors get some revenge and to now make the final four," said UCLA head coach Stella Sampras Webster. "We had players step up today, and that’s what you need to do well here. We have to have players step up tomorrow to do well against Florida."
The second-seeded Gators defeated No. 7 Miami, 4-1, but were again tested, this time in the late stages of the match. Florida won the doubles point and got quick second and third points from Olivia Janowicz at No. 6 and Allie Will at No. 1, but Miami fought back, with Gabriela Mejia winning at No. 3 to make it 3-1 Florida.
The fourth point wasn’t obvious, however, as both Alex Cercone and Joanna Mather of Florida had dropped their opening sets, and Lauren Embree was also down a set. Mather and Cercone both rallied to force third sets against Hurricanes Danielle Mills and Kayla Rizzolo at the No. 4 and 5 positions, but things were looking bleak for Florida, when Cercone fell behind 5-3 in the final set. Cercone broke back, however, and just as Mather was getting a late break, Cercone held for 6-5.
In a matter of minutes, Mather and Cercone were playing clinching points simultaneously. Mather lost hers, but Cercone did not, and for the second consecutive match, she earned the Gators’ fourth point.
"At 4 and 5, maybe we didn’t play that crisply at first, but once they get their teeth in the match, those two are very good, very tough competitors," Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist said. "This team is deep, and we just don’t count on the same points the whole time."
The defending champion Stanford Cardinal also know a bit about depth, having won their round-of-16 match against Northwestern without Pac-10 champion Kristie Ahn. Ahn, who suffered an ankle injury prior to the regionals, was back in the lineup Sunday against eighth-seeded Georgia, playing at No. 4 with her right ankle heavily taped.
She wasn’t out there long, as Stanford earned the doubles point, and in a mere two-and-a-half hours, handed Georgia a comprehensive 4-0 defeat.
Stanford’s 4-2 victory over Northwestern in the round of 16 was sealed at 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning, with only a few hardy spectators still in attendance.
With a day to recover, that late finish wasn’t a factor in the quarterfinal match, but with the quick turnaround to Monday’s semifinals, head coach Lele Forood was pleased with her team’s efficiency.
"Winning the doubles point was huge for us today," said Forood, who knew that its loss in the Northwestern match contributed to their very long night against the Wildcats. "I think we took a lot of momentum into the singles today."
Stacey Tan collected the second point for the Cardinal in less than an hour over Georgia senior Cameron Ellis at No. 5, and with the exception of Ahn, who lost the first set to Lilly Kimbell at No. 4, every Stanford player was razor sharp.
Hilary Barte played flawlessly against Georgia’s Chelsey Gullickson at No. 1, using fist pumps and "C’mons" to fire up the Stanford fans, who braved the chilly late-afternoon temperatures. Once Barte posted a 6-1, 6-4 win over Gullickson, there wasn’t much doubt about the outcome, and freshman Nicole Gibbs clinched the match with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Maho Kowase at No. 3.
Stanford’s semifinal opponent, No. 5 Baylor, had to fight for nearly four hours to subdue No. 4 North Carolina, 4-3, but Jelena Stanivuk’s 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 win over Lauren McHale gave the Bears another chance at the Cardinal, who defeated them in last year’s quarterfinals.
Baylor was the top seed in the tournament in 2010, but even then-Baylor head coach Joey Scrivano was calling the eighth-seeded Stanford team the favorite, and this year, he can fully embrace the underdog role.
"If we go into tomorrow’s match and start calculating all the factors, we have no chance to win," said Scrivano. "They’re a better team on paper. They should win. It’s at Stanford. Everything’s stacked in their favor. But there’s a reason we play the matches, so we’re going to have fun tomorrow."
Against North Carolina, Baylor won the doubles point and took early leads in singles, but North Carolina battled back, taking four first sets. With wins from Nina Secerbegovic at No. 2 and Diana Nakic, who had won the first set when Tar Heel Shinann Featherston had to retire with an injury at No. 3, Baylor had a 3-0 lead, but the Bears needed someone to get into a third set. North Carolina got points from Gina Suarez-Malaguti at No. 5 and Zoe De Bruycker at No. 1, leaving it to courts 4 and 6.
North Carolina’s Tessa Lyons served for the match in the second set against Taylor Ormond at No. 6, but didn’t hold, then failed to convert numerous match points with Ormond serving down 5-6. Ormond won the tiebreaker to get to a third set, and by that time, Stanivuk had taken the second set from McHale.
North Carolina needed both points to advance to the semifinals for the second straight year, and eventually Lyons got past Ormond, but McHale was down match points by then, serving at 2-5. A fortunate net cord and two wayward forehands by Stanivuk kept the Tar Heel comeback hopes alive, but McHale couldn’t survive the fourth match point, framing a forehand to end it.
Stanivuk, a senior from Croatia, has never lost an NCAA tournament match, winning 11 in her Baylor career.
"She’s played so many big matches, and she’s come through pretty much every time," said Scrivano. "She’s got a wealth of confidence and experience, and that really made the difference in the end."
Monday’s action begins with the men’s semifinals. Two-time defending champion and No. 2 seed Southern California will play No. 6 Georgia, and top seed Virginia will meet No. 4 seed Ohio State at noon Pacific time. The women’s semifinals follow at 4 p.m.