Rice holds off Illinois
Owls win first NCAA tournament match in program history
OXFORD, Miss. -- Rice made certain the first win in school history in the NCAA tournament would be a memorable one, staging a dramatic rally to upset 20th ranked Illinois 4-3 on Friday.
Sophomore Kimberly Anicete's 8-6 tiebreak win in her second set on Court 5 advanced the Owls to the Regional final on Saturday, completing an improbable comeback win that Rice head coach Elizabeth Schmidt said was a team win in every possible context.
"This match today is what college tennis is all about and what makes it such an amazing experience, "Schmidt said. "To see the heart that everyone one of our players displayed, whether they were playing a point or cheering on a teammate was something I'll never forget. Everyone played a part."
The win was Rice's first in NCAA team competition. The Owls had lost their previous first-round matches in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2006 and in their last two appearances, they had been shut out.
The 39th ranked Owls (17-8), who had lost to the Illini (18-8) 5-1 in a dual match on their home court in mid-March, seemed poised to take the early lead with the doubles point. After Ana Guzman and Katie Gater won on Court 2 to give the Owls a split of the first two matches, Rice's 26th ranked duo of Natalie Beazant and Dominique Harmath had shaken off a slow start to take a 5-4 lead.
However, Illinois 69th ranked tandem of Marisa Lambropoulos and Melissa Kopinski, spoiled those plans by winning the last four games to take an 8-5 decision and put the Illini up 1-0.
"Natalie and Dominique have been playing so well all year, so I have to admit I was feeling we were in a good place when they came back to go up 5-4 and Dominique was serving," Schmidt said. "They were a little off their game today, but give Illinois the credit. They swung free and made some great returns on our serves down the stretch."
The loss was just the fifth of year for the Owls top duo, who have qualified for the NCAA Doubles Championship and marked the first time this year they failed to clinch a doubles point.
"I was concerned about how we would react in that situation. I could tell that both of them were upset that they had not closed out the point," Schmidt noted.
Down 1-0, the Owls were faced with having to carve out a win after dropping doubles something they had done just once this year. However, this time it was facing a top 20 opponent in the opening round of the NCAA Championships.
In the early going, Schmidt had reason to be concerned.
Needing four wins in the six singles matches to extend their season, the Owls took early leads by Beazant on Court 1 and Anicete on Court 5, while Katie Gater was in a tight match on Court 3. However, a fourth point did not appear plausible in the early going.
"We were down 6-0 at six, 6-1 at four and then Dominique was down 5-0 at two. It could have been very deflating to look at the scoreboard and see where we were. But at that moment, Dominique dug in and started to play her game. She started chipping away at the lead, game by game," Schmidt said. "At the same time, Natalie and Katie were picking up wins and the momentum of the match started to change."
Harmath won the next six games to take a 6-5 lead. After dropping the 12th game to force a tiebreaker, she completed the improbable comeback by taking the tiebreak 7-5, giving the Owls four first set wins in singles and making their comeback more plausible with each point.
Beazant, The C-USA Player of the Year, had rebounded from her doubles disappointment to race to a straight set win at No. 1, her 16th consecutive win, to tie the match at 1-1. After Illinois went back up 2-1, Gater tied it with a win on Court 3.
The lone Owl with any previous NCAA experience, Gater and Guzman teamed for an 8-1 win at No. 2 doubles to pick up her first career NCAA win. She ground out a 6-4 win in her first set of singles, then clinched her match with a 6-1 win in the second.
"Katie did a great job of following the game plan for her match. She really played well today,' Schmidt said.
Even though Illinois went back in front for the third time with a win on Court 4, the Owls held the advantage of first set wins in each of the remaining matches.
Harmath tied the match at 3-3, winning the final three games of her second set to close out Illinois' Melissa Kopinski, turning the stage over to Anicete on Court 5.
Anicete had a chance to close the match, serving 5-4 in the second set, but the Illini's Rachael White broke her serve and the match was forced into a tiebreak game. She had a chance to serve for the win in the tiebreak, leading 6-5, only to see White win the point. The third time proved to be a charm, as Anicente won the tiebreaker 8-6 and clinch the win for the Owls.
"Kim showed so much mental toughness, being able to bounce back again and again, knowing the match was on the line," Schmidt said. "All the hard work she has put in from the start of the season really paid off and she relied on that strength to get the point and get us the win," Schmidt added.
The win puts the Owls one match away from earning a spot in the NCAA semifinals, but to advance, they must get by host Ole Miss, who dispatched of Southern, 4-0. Schmidt knows her team can dwell long on their win over Illinois in order to be prepared to face the 16th ranked Rebels.
"Everyone is pretty hyped right now. The response we've received from fans and family since the match ended has been amazing. The fun thing about playing in the NCAA Championship is you have another great match to play the next day. Ole Miss is a great team, but we are ready to get on the court and complete," Schmidt said.