Cristina Stancu kept the Aggies in the match.
Texas A&M Athletics

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In a battle between Southeastern Conference Western Division leaders, No. 4 Texas A&M closed out its regular-season home schedule with a pivotal 4-3 victory against No. 7 Alabama on Sunday at the George P. Mitchell Tennis Center.

The Aggies (18-2, 10-1 SEC) take sole possession of first place in the SEC West ahead of Alabama, which fell to 17-3, 9-2 SEC. A&M remains tied with Florida and Georgia for first in the overall SEC standings with two matches remaining in the regular season.

“Obviously I’m absolutely delighted and very proud of our kids,” A&M head coach Howard Joffe said. “I did feel like this wasn’t our best mental performance. Part of the job of the coach is to weigh the outcome, which in this case was good, with the substance. I felt like we left a few matches out there. I don’t want to take any credit away from Alabama. They are a very fine team with very fine players who competed hard and with passion, but I feel like we got ourselves in the hole and it was a mixture of some toughness and some fortune that we were able to come back.”

A&M had never led in the team scoring until, in the last match standing, freshman Ines Deheza defeated Alabama senior Antonia Foehse 6-4, 5-7, 6-1 at No. 4 singles to clinch the 4-3 victory. It marked Deheza’s 10th consecutive victory and she improved to 8-0 in SEC singles matches.

A&M was forced to fight from behind after dropping the doubles point. Deheza and freshman Anna Mamalat teamed together for the first time in doubles and defeated Natalia Maynetto and Emily Zabor at the No. 3 line, but A&M was unable to get a win on the remaining two courts.

Foehse and Maya Jansen jumped out to a 6-1 lead against A&M’s 72nd-ranked senior duo of Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar and Wen Sun en route to an 8-5 victory at the No. 2 line.

The point was decided at No. 1, where a battle between top-10 opponents ensued. Alabama’s sixth-ranked duo of Alexa Guarachi and Mary Anne Macfarlane pulled away from seventh-ranked Stefania Hristov and Cristina Stancu, winning the last three games to take the match 9-7 and give the Crimson Tide a 1-0 lead.

Maynetto gave Alabama a 2-0 lead at the start of singles as she cruised to a 6-2, 6-1 victory against Hristov at No. 6.

Aggie senior Nazari Urbina, ranked 55th in singles, put A&M on the scoreboard and remained perfect in SEC play with a 6-2, 6-4 victory against 56th-ranked Guarachi at No. 2. Urbina improved to 9-0 in SEC play and she also notched her 96th career singles victory to move into sole possession of fourth place in the A&M career records.

Fifth-ranked Sanchez-Quintanar evened the score at two as she held off 26th-ranked Macfarlane 6-3, 7-6 (3) on the No. 1 court. Sanchez-Quintanar improved to 33-6 overall, including 21-4 against ranked opponents, to move into a tie for fourth place in the A&M records for most singles wins in a season.

Zabor put the Tide ahead 3-2, narrowly pulling off a  consecutive set victory against Sun at the No. 5 line. Zabor easily won the first set 6-2, but Sun put up a solid fight in the second set and forced a tiebreaker before falling 7-6 (5).

Stancu then evened the score with a courageous effort at No. 3. She took an injury timeout in the first set, trailing Jansen 6-5. Despite suffering agonizing pain in her right shoulder, she returned to the court and evened the set at six to force a tiebreaker. The tiebreaker was tied at four, before the determined Stancu reeled off three consecutive points to win the crucial first set.

Stancu, ranked No. 68 in singles, jumped out to a 3-0 lead against 84th-ranked Jansen in the second set, but Jansen came back to tie the set at three and again at four. Stancu then won the next two games to take the match, tying the team score at three and keeping the Aggies’ hopes alive.

“If [Stancu] had to retire in that match, we lose,” Joffe said. “It was very brave of her.”

All eyes then turned to the No. 4 court, where Deheza had just won her a consecutive game to take a narrow 2-1 lead in the third and final set. With the crowd cheering her on, Deheza did not drop another game while closing out the victory.

“The end results of the match speaks exactly to how closely matched the teams are, and on that basis, how much pressure and stress there is,” Joffe said. “There is no question that one of the things that our team, analogous to a one-hit wonder musician, we’ve gotten ranked very, very high out of the gates, and there is no team that isn’t giving us their best shot. There is just inherently much more pressure. I can see it on our kids. The last time we played and really got after it was when we played Florida, whom we were looking up at. Most of these matches are terribly, terribly stressful, but it’s definitely partly a character builder for our kids so they know how to handle these situations.”