Georgia Tech stuns No. 8 Bama
Yellow Jackets advance to Round of 16 in Athens, Ga.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Georgia Tech's overcame a variety of obstacles Saturday afternoon to defeat No. 8 Alabama 4-3 to advance to the NCAA Championships Round of 16 to be held in Athens, Ga.
Not only was Tech the lower ranked team, it was a lower seed than Alabama. The Yellow Jackets also had to defeat the Tide on their home courts -- both the indoor and outdoor versions -- as rain caused three delays and finally forced the match indoors. There was also a large Alabama fan base, which senior Caroline Lilley related to her high school basketball days in front of raucous opposing fans.
"Alabama, you have to hand it to them, what a quality team," Tech head coach Bryan Shelton said. "They played hard, they played fair, they're well coached, they had a huge fan base out here today, which made the match extremely exciting. This match had everything. Everything that is good in college tennis, we were able to see and experience today. To be able to come through with a victory at their place was really special. I'm really proud of the girls for hanging in there and competing. I think today's win is a culmination of a lot of hard work that our team has put in over the last year or two. For them to get this result is pretty special."
Tech found out just how tough it was going to be to beat the Crimson Tide as soon as doubles play began. Lilley and Muriel Wacker beat the Tide's pair of Taylor Lindsey and Yasmine Ebada 8-3 on court three.
Tech's 23rd-ranked side of Jillian O'Neill and Alex Anghelescu rallied from down 7-5 to tie the No. 1 doubles match with Alabama's 14th-ranked Alexa Guarachi and Courtney McLane at 7-7. However, the Tide would pull out the 9-7 win and level doubles play.
Court two doubles was a classic back-and-forth match, with Tech's team of Lynn Blau and Elizabeth Kilborn grabbing their 19th doubles win of the season over Alabama's 41st-ranked duo of Antonia Foehse and Mary Anne Macfarlane, 8-6, sending the Yellow Jackets into singles play with a 1-0 lead.
"I think Alabama, most teams across the country would say they're one of the best doubles teams in the country," Shelton said. "If you look at their record, they've won almost every single doubles point this year, playing in a tough SEC conference, so we knew that would be a tough point. I thought that would be the toughest point for us to get. For us to come out ready to go from the first ball, we competed well in all three doubles. They took a lead on court one and we battled back to seven-all. Two and three doubles was just really, really tough for us today. They played really well and handled the pressure and executed."
Alabama quickly evened the score once singles play when Foehse knocked off Blau 7-5, 6-0, on court five.
After several short rain delays, the match eventually moved indoors. Soon after, Anghelescu gave Tech a 2-1 lead as she beat Alex Clay 6-4, 6-4 on court four. Viet Ha Ngo claimed her third straight and gave Georgia Tech a 3-1 team lead when she downed Alabama's Lindsey 6-0, 6-3 on court six.
Needing only one point to clinch the team win and punch their ticket to Athens, the Yellow Jackets needed to get a win from one of Jillian O'Neill on court one, Caroline Lilley on court two or Elizabeth Kilborn on court three. All three matches were hotly contested and all three went to decisive third sets.
The Tide pulled within 3-2 in the team score when McLane finished a 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 win over Kilborn on court three. O'Neill, ranked No. 11 in singles, came up just short in her third set rally against Alabama's 24th-ranked Macfarlane. The Tide sophomore, who Shelton said played like a senior, claimed a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 win to tie the team score 3-3.
Lilley dropped a tough 6-4 first set while the competition was still being held outside. After moving inside, Lilley forced a third set with a 7-6(3) second set victory. She held serve and then forced a break to tie the third set with Guarachi, ranked No. 52, 3-3. Guarachi quickly got the break back and then held serve to take a 5-3 lead.
But the tough Lilley wouldn't quit and held her next serve to pull within 5-4. After three deuce points, Guarachi hit a backhand into the net, evening the score at 5-5. Lilley took the lead in emphatic fashion, smoking an ace past Guarachi to move ahead 6-5. After moving ahead 30-0 in the next game, Guarachi tied the score at 30-30. Two points later, Lilley hit a backhand winner down the line past Guarachi for the 4-6, 7-6(3), 7-5 win.
"I thought Elizabeth did a good job of getting up in that first set," Shelton said. "When we went inside, I thought her opponent took advantage of the indoor courts and played some of her best tennis and it was just too good on that court. I thought Jillian had a real chance, you have to hand her opponent Mary a lot of credit, she played like a champ, she played like a senior out there. Jill fought hard, but losing that one, I felt like it almost broke our back.
"But then came Caroline," Shelton continued. "Even being down a break in the third, she never gave up, she just persevered through to the end and played the best tennis of her college career today. That's the most pressure I think we've felt all season, it was do or die, and Caroline came through with her very best stuff. I think today, for her, was a reward for all the hard work she's put in."
Georgia Tech improved to 16-11 overall and advanced to its seventh NCAA Sweet 16, where the Yellow Jackets will face the ninth-ranked Cal Golden Bears at 9 a.m. on May 17 at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga. Tech is 1-1 against Cal in the NCAA Tournament. In 2007, the Jackets downed the Bears 4-2 in the semifinals in Athens, Ga., en route to the national title. In 2009, the Bears returned the favor, knocking off the Jackets 5-0 in the Sweet 16 in College Station, Texas.
"I think we're playing well," Shelton said. "I think we're playing gritty tennis which is where you want to be at this stage, you want to be able to win the tough ones and play well deep in the sets. We're battle tested in our conference, we've played a lot top 10 programs this year. We've had some success and we've lost some tight matches, but all those matches help us get to where we are now, which is in the Sweet 16."