Cercone
UF

ATHENS, Ga. -- Alexandra Cercone rallied for a three-set singles victory in the deciding match and Florida defeated third-seeded Duke 4-3 on Monday to advance to the final match at the NCAA Women’s Tennis Championships at the at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.

“I don’t know how we won that match,” said UF head coach Roland Thornqvist, who earned the 350th win of his career, as well as the 275th of his 11-year Gator tenure. “We found a way on doubles. I like the way we have played at the end of the doubles matches so far. Starting at the SEC Tournament and through this tournament, we’ve been very good at the end of doubles making the right decisions. Today was no different. That was the difference. In retrospect, we needed it.”

The championship appearance is the Gator’s third consecutive and 13th in program history, winning team titles in 1992, 1996, 1998, 2003 and 2011. Second-seeded Florida (26-1) will play top-seeded UCLA (26-2) on Tuesday at 1 p.m. in the final.

The Bruins (26-2) upended conference rival and fifth-seeded Southern California 4-3 in their semifinal victory. This is the first time in women’s tennis history that both semifinal matches went the distance.

Florida holds a slight 13-10 lead in the all-time series against UCLA, including a 7-5 edge in NCAA meetings. The teams most recently met in last year’s NCAA semifinals, where the Gators took the deceiving 4-0 victory en route to winning their fifth national championship.

In Monday’s semifinal, Cercone trailed 2-0 in the third set but regrouped to win the next three games and held for a 4-2 lead. The Gator sophomore then held double break-point in the seventh game, but Mary Clayton battled back to hold and jumped out on Cercone’s serve by winning the first three points to set up triple break point. The Gator sophomore, who improved to 8-0 all-time in NCAA dual match singles play, fought off all three of those and another to take a 5-3 lead. She then capitalized on her first break point opportunity in the next game as Clayton’s ground stroke sailed long and set off a terrific Gator celebration once the 3 hour and 14 minute match ended.

“This is her sophomore year, and so far she has a clean sheet in this event,” Thornqvist said. “Alex had some ups and downs in her play, but somehow, when you come to this event, she is a different player. Today she got outplayed and found a way to win the second. I didn’t see the middle part of the third set, but she was just a surgeon at the end. She put the ball where she wanted it to be at the end.”

Florida took the hard-fought doubles point, with Allie Will and Sofie Oyen defeating Clayton and Ester Goldfeld 8-3. Duke claimed the win on court three, setting the stage for court two, where the veteran pair of Lauren Embree and Joanna Mather stepped up to earn the 9-8 (7-1) victory against Beatrice Capra and Rachel Kahan.

In that deciding doubles match, the Gators dropped their serve and Duke went to the baseline with an 8-7 lead. The Blue Devils couldn’t convert and the match entered a tiebreaker, where the two teams held serve on its first respective trips, before the Gators ripped off the next seven points to earn the victory. Embree and Mather, who had their 23-match win streak halted in Saturday’s quarterfinal match, improved to 49-2 all-time in dual match competition and 53-8 overall. Embree improved to 19-0 all-time in doubles-point clinching matches.

The Blue Devils (29-3) were undeterred after dropping the doubles point, having lost it three times in their previous five matches but won the dual match each time, and came out firing on the singles courts, winning the first set on five of the six courts.

“Duke is one heck of a team,” Thornqvist said. “The first hour in singles, they were beating us to death. I thought it got to us. I was really concerned that we were going to wear down. Somehow we found a way. Somehow we found a way to get one of [four and five]. I was really proud of our players. We were really down and out, but found a way to get back in the match.”

Embree was the only Gator to take her opening set, but needed to regroup after falling behind 3-0, down two breaks. The Gator junior won four consecutive games to get the match back on-serve and earned another break for a 5-3 lead against Goldfeld, who broke back. Embree dug deep and broke Goldfeld for the fourth consecutive time to win the opening frame. They then won the first two games of the second, before Goldfeld earned a break That game, however, was the only one the Blue Devil would win, as Embree won the final four to earn the 6-4, 6-1 decision and post her 17th consecutive singles win and gave Florida a 2-0 lead.

Mather then rallied for a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 victory on court three against Hanna Mar, winning the final eight games to record her 18th consecutive singles victory and help the Gators to a 3-0 lead. Serving at 40-30 and a 4-0 lead in the third set, Mather ran off the court after her first serve and got sick, but rushed right back and nailed her second serve to win the point and the game to take a 5-0 lead en route to the convincing third-set decision.

Florida was also able to force a third set on courts four, five and six, when court one – featuring the nation’s top two ranked players – had just completed its first set in one hour and 35 minutes, with Duke taking the set 6-4.

Court six was the third match to complete and Duke got on the scoreboard when Monica Turewicz defeated Olivia Janowicz, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3. The extremely tight battle on court one also came to end, with Duke’s second-ranked Capra downing top-ranked Will, 6-4, 6-4, in three hours and one minute and the Blue Devils inched closer, 3-2.

Oyen continued to fight on court four, where she lost her serve to drop the first set against Rachel Kahan, but was able to break in the ninth game of the second set and held to force a third set. The Gator sophomore then held to open the third, but Kahan won the next five games en route to taking the 6-3, 5-7, 6-2 decision and even the team scoring at 3-all, setting the stage for Cercone’s third set heroics.

Florida, which won its 21st consecutive match, improved to 13-9 all-time in the NCAA semifinals action and holds a 5-7 record in NCAA final matches.