ATHENS, Ga. — UCLA earned the right to play for a national title on Monday, as the top-seeded Bruins registered a thrilling 4-3 victory against No. 5 USC in the NCAA semifinals at the Georgia’s Dan Magill Tennis Complex. UCLA (26-2) will now meet No. 2 Florida (26-1) on Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. ET. The Gators advanced to the final with a 4-3 win against No. 3 Duke on Monday.
“We knew going into this match that it was going to be a battle and that it really could’ve gone either way,” said Stella Sampras Webster, who has now led four teams to the NCAA title match in 16 years as head coach at UCLA. “I have a lot of respect for Rich Gallien and his program – they are just warriors. Today, we just executed a little bit better and were able to get the win. I’m proud of my team. It was really hot out there and I know the heat was affecting some players. That was something we were concerned about and we tried to prepare for as much as possible. We’re just happy to be here, and to now have a chance to win a championship.”
UCLA knew that getting off to a good start in doubles would be extremely important for momentum later in the match, especially since the Bruins lost five of six singles matches after dropping the doubles point in the last meeting between the two teams. UCLA eventually worked its way to a two-break lead at court No. 1, where sixth-ranked Robin Anderson and Skylar Morton were serving up 6-2 against third-ranked Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria. The Bruins were also up a break at the No. 2 spot, as ninth-ranked Courtney Dolehide and Pamela Montez were serving up 6-5 against 49th-ranked Valeria Pulido and Zoe Scandalis. The only advantage USC had in doubles was a 5-2 lead at court No. 3. After Anderson and Morton closed things out with an 8-3 upset against their higher-ranked opponents, all attention then turned to court No. 2, where UCLA had just broke for a 7-4 lead. That left Montez to close out the match on her serve and she did just that, fighting off a break point to give UCLA an 8-4 victory and a 1-0 lead heading into singles play.
Despite winning the doubles point, UCLA knew that Monday’s match was far from over, especially given the fact that USC dominated the Bruins in singles in the last meeting between the two teams. Singles was extremely close, with the only match not going to a third set coming at court No. 4, where Morton dispatched of Kaitlyn Christian, 6-4, 7-5 to give UCLA a 2-0 advantage.
USC, however, would battle right back; actually taking a 3-2 lead following three-set wins from Gabriella DeSimone, Santamaria and Pulido.
Only two matches remained on court at the time of Pulido’s win and UCLA needed to win both. Things looked good for the Bruins at court No. 1, where Anderson moved out to a 5-0 lead over Scandalis. Anderson would eventually win that match 6-2 in the third, forcing all attention next door to court No. 2, where USC’s Danielle Lao was serving at 2-3 in the third set against Jones. Jones would break Lao for a 4-2 lead and then hold her serve for 5-2. At the changeover, both players called trainers to the court and there was a slight delay for treatment.
Lao came out of the injury timeout and quickly got down 15-40 on her serve. She managed to save one match point but Jones capitalized on the second, taking a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 victory and send UCLA into the final for the first time since 2008.
“I think that she got a little tight when she knew that it was going to come down to her,” said Jones, who had never beaten Lao until Monday. “I think it was almost the opposite for me. I feel like I was tight until it came down to me and then I started playing my better tennis. I don’t know, something triggered in my mind and then I started to play the way I wanted to play.”
The defending NCAA champion Gators knocked UCLA out in the semifinals of last year’s NCAA tournament at Stanford. Florida returns every player from last year’s team.
The Bruins’ two previous national titles came in 1981 (AIAW) and 2008 (NCAA). UCLA is looking to earn the program’s 109th NCAA Championship.