Florida heads to title match
Gators head to title match for 12th time in program history
Florida defeated UCLA 4-0 in the semifinals of the NCAA Championships on Monday at Taube Tennis Stadium on the campus of Stanford University.
The second-seeded Gators (30-1) knocked out the sixth-seeded Bruins (22-6) by winning a highly contested doubles point and then collected victories on the singles courts by Lauren Embree, Alex Cercone and Allie Will to advance to the championship match for the 12th time in program history.
Florida will play top-seeded Stanford (28-0) in the final on Tuesday, May 24 beginning at 7 p.m. ET. The championship match will be televised live on ESPNU, with a taped-delay airing on ESPN2 May 26 at 6:30 p.m. ET.
The Cardinal, which defeated Baylor, 4-1, in their semifinal match, sports an NCAA-record 184 consecutive home-match win streak entering Tuesday’s final. The Cardinal lead the series against the Gators 16-11, including the 4-2 decision in the final of the ITA National Team Indoor Championships on Feb. 21. Stanford has been even more dominating against Florida in the NCAA Championships, posting a 9-2 record that includes last year’s heartbreaking 4-3 outcome in the final. Prior to that, the last time the two clubs played was in the 2006 NCAA Semifinals, where Stanford took the 4-0 win on its home courts. The Gators won the match prior to that, downing the Cardinal 4-3 in the 2003 NCAA Final in Gainesville, as UF won its fourth national title. Florida and Stanford have squared off seven times in the NCAA Final, with the Cardinal winning five of those matches and the Gators capturing the title in 1996 and 2003.
“We’re proud, this is what we’ve been working toward since late August,” UF head coach Roland Thornqvist said. “I felt at times this year we played with a heavy, heavy burden and today’s match was no different. We’ve been playing with the whole world on our shoulders thinking that we have to get to the NCAA Finals and any else was going to be a failure. That’s held us back at times. Today we started to let go at times and we played better. Stanford will be the heavy favorite tomorrow. They haven’t lost at home for 11 or 12 years. Tomorrow, we’ll have the luxury of just playing good tennis with no fear and I hope we take advantage of that.”
Will provided the clinching dual match victory, as she rallied from a 3-0 deficit to start against McCall Jones and eventually won the see-saw first set in a tiebreaker en route to the 7-6 (9-7), 6-2 victory that helped Florida win its 20th consecutive match and post its first 30-win season since 2003 and its seventh in program history.
Will was able to get the set back on-serve at 4-all and broke Jones for a 5-4 lead. Jones came back with a break and both competitors held in the next two service games that led into a tiebreaker, where Will fought off two set-points before capitalizing on her second set-point of the frame. The first four games of the second were on-serve before Will broke and lost just one point on her serve for a 4-2 lead and eventually her 15th consecutive win, as she improved to 50-2 in career dual-match singles action.
“I thought I played really well in singles today,” Will shared. “I hadn’t played her in a really long time and she played really well in the first set and made me earn every point. I had to battle and grind today. I thought my coach helped me a lot. I used my forehand really well. I was glad I got the first set and I was able to relax. I went for it in the second set and happy I came out on top today.
“It’s really exciting,” said Will of advance to the championship match. “I’m so proud of my team. We’re fighting and giving everything we have. I think mentally we’re doing better than ever and that’s why we’re in the position we’re in getting ready for the final.”
Embree got the Gators rolling on the singles courts, where she defeated Noelle Hickey 6-2, 6-2, and gave Florida a 2-0 lead in one hour and 16 minutes. The Gator sophomore improved to 23-0 in singles action this year and 55-6 in her short career. Embree collected a pair of breaks in the first set, taking the fourth and eighth games to win the frame. In the second set, she lost her serve to go down 2-1, but bounced back with a break and then held at love, before earning another break and cruising the rest of the way.
Cercone gave UF a 3-0 lead when she earned her 13th consecutive victory and defeated Courtney Dolehide 7-5, 6-3. The Gator freshman, who has won all three of her singles match in all three attempts at the championship site, won her team-leading 36th match of the season. She lost three of her first four serves, but answered each with a break and the opening set was on-serve until Cercone managed one final break to win the first frame. Cercone and Dolehide traded breaks midway through the second and the set remained on-serve again, with the only other break coming in the final game, where the Gator rookie closed out the victory.
Junior Joanna Mather inspired the Gators with her gutsy comeback effort, as she rallied from down a set and 5-0, fighting off two match-points to win the second set 7-5 and held serve to start the third set when play was halted.
“If you look at one thing that defines our team, it’s Joanna Mather today,” Thornqvist praised. “She was down a set and 5-0, facing two match points and it’s the Florida Gator way to never give up. Twenty minutes later I look up at the scoreboard and it’s 5-all. She didn’t finish her match, but her effort and might helped everybody else.
“In singles I thought we played our best in the three matches since we’ve been here,” Thornqvist said. “The first 20 minutes of doubles looked pretty ominous, actually. We didn’t move. We played on our heels. UCLA completely took it to us for those first 20 minutes. But once we got going I started to feel better. We’ve done a good job at the end of sets the whole week and at the end of doubles was no different. We executed very, very well. We wanted to poach at the end of the doubles and that was the difference.
“In singles we got off to good starts,” Thornqvist continued. “We finally won some first sets and that makes a difference. It frees you up as a player. You’re not supposed to look at the scoreboard as a player but I guess it’s human nature to do. I think it’s easier for all the players to look up and see that their teammates won some first sets. I’m just really proud of all of them.”
“It feels amazing,” Embree shared about playing for a national championship. “There’s no other feeling like this. Our team is so tough. When I was playing my match today I knew that we had won some first sets and I knew that Joanna was down but she wasn’t going to get off that court, that she was going to keep fighting. We’re just really excited to be in the finals.”
In doubles, Embree and Sofie Oyen defeated 24th-ranked Noelle Hickey and McCall Jones 8-6 before Caroline Hitimana and Mather clinched the doubles point win with an 8-4 victory against Maya Johansson and Pamela Montez.
Embree and Oyen found themselves down 3-0, two breaks, before rallying to win the next three games. The Gator pair, however, wasn’t able to hold serve and the Bruins took advantage and jumped out to a 5-3 lead. Oyen held and the Gators broke for 5-all, but UF couldn’t get the frame on-serve and dropped its next trip to the baseline. Embree and Oyen rebounded with another break and Oyen again held for 7-6, before earning one final break to win the match and improve to 8-0 this year.
Florida also lost its serve on court three to begin the match, but regrouped with a break and Mather held. The teams traded serves before UF broke again at love for 4-2 and Mather held for a 5-2 advantage en route to the clinching doubles-point win.