Embree provides clinching point again
Florida junior's win at No. 2 singles lifts Gators to another title
ATHENS, Ga. -- Lauren Embree has a proven flair for the moment, but there was no need to summon it Tuesday. That was fine with the Florida junior after she served out the clinching match for the second consecutive year to lead the Gators to another national championship.
Florida (27-1) made quick work of No. 1 UCLA in a 4-0 win at Georgia's Dan McGill Tennis Complex in a match that bore no resemblance to the No. 2 Gators' past two trips to the finale. They lost 4-3 to Stanford in 2010, and last year won 4-3 against the Cardinal last year to snap Stanford's NCAA record 184-match home winning streak.
Then, as on Tuesday, Embree was on point.
A year ago, she rallied from an 0-4 deficit in the third set to beat Stanford's Mallory Burdette 5-7, 6-3, 7-6(6) and win the whole thing.
Against the Bruins (26-3), Embry rolled to a 6-4, 6-0 win against UCLA senior McCall Jones to sew up the Gators sixth women's national title.
“I'm glad it wasn't as dramatic as last year,” Embree said, who moved her NCAA duals match record to 12-0. “I just happened to be the last one [to score.]”
And UCLA just happened to be in Florida's way.
The Gators encountered only modest interference on the way to winning the doubles point. Sofie Oyen and Allie Will beat UCLA's Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton 8-4, and not long after that Alex Cerone and Caroline Hitimana passed Jones and Carling Seguso 8-5 to lock up the point.
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UCLA coach Stella Sampras Webster said the Gators dictated play, and that was an understatement. Cercone gave Florida a 2-0 lead with a 6-2, 6-0 win against Chanelle Van Nguyen 6-2, 6-0 at No. 5 singles, and Oyen didn't take much longer to finish off Morton 6-3, 6-2 at No. 4 for a 3-0 edge.
“We weren't as sharp as we needed to be to beat a team like Florida,” Sampras Webster said. “I thought we'd be able to compete and be able to give them a good, contested match, but it just seemed like they took over.”
Ironically, Florida coach Roland Thornqvist said that the Cardinal helped the Gators win this title. Florida's only loss was Feb. 12 at Stanford. It wasn't close. The Cardinal swept doubles in a 5-2 win.
That was like a pressure-release valve for the Gators.
“Without a doubt it's much more difficult to repeat than to win the first time,” Thornqvist said of the season rather than Tuesday's match. “[That loss] really helped us. One of the really dangerous things is to walk around thinking and knowing you're having an undefeated season.
“Then, you play every match not to lose. They kicked our butts. It was really not fun at the time, but now it was the best thing that could have happened to us.”
Embree's arrival from Lely High School in Marco Island, Fla., in the fall of 2009 was critical. She was considered the No. 2 prospect in the nation, and incoming classmates Will -- who is now ranked No. 1 -- and Belgian native Hitimana combined with her to give Florida the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.
A season before those three arrived, the Gators went 16-10 and although they made it to the round of 16 (where they lost 4-2 to Georgia), Florida was just 7-4 in the SEC and 3-10 away from home.
Senior Joanna Mather said there's been a simple difference between then and the past three seasons -- which have all ended in the NCAA championship match.
“We got a lot of new players so that helps,” she said. “My freshman year we were so happy to get to the round of 16; that was such a big deal. But I wouldn't trade any of these four years for anything.”
Oyen and No. 6 singles player Olivia Janowicz joined Cercone in the 2010 recruiting class and they're two-for-two in national championships.
Cercone clinched the Gators' 4-3 victory against Duke in Monday's semifinal, when several players battled extreme heat and cramping. She had no issues Tuesday in moving to 10-0 in NCAA duals.
“I was a little concerned about how I would hold up so I'm really happy that I played efficient tennis,” she said. “I don't strike the ball as well [in the NCAAs], but I compete the hardest. I don't know; there's something about the atmosphere here.”
Once Embree built the 5-0 lead in her second set, UCLA's Jones took a medical timeout to tend to her badly blistered feet. She also told teammate Robin Anderson that she hoped that might buy enough time for the UCLA freshman to win the Bruins a point at No. 1 singles. Robinson led Will 6-4, 5-2 at the time, but Will was taking her time between serves.
Eventually, the Bruins all ran out of time.
When play resumbed, Embree won four consecutive serves, and Will dropped her racket on court No. 1 and sprinted over to her teammate for one whale of a celebration. “Like Alex said, it's hard not to play your best here,” Embree said.
There was no evidence of fatigue in the Gators Tuesday.
“I really think that all those wind sprints, all the grass workouts, the Gator mountains -- all those things that are painful -- really paid off for the Florida Gators because without them we could not have rebounded after from [Monday's] tremendous battle against Duke,” Thornqvist said. “I thought we were absolutely fantastic from start to finish.”