NCAA wrap: Pepperdine stuns No. 1 UNC in final four
Everything went just as expected on Friday at the NCAA semifinals—at least if you ask Pepperdine women's head coach Per Nilsson.
The top two seeds advanced in the men's draw, with Florida and Baylor set to meet in Saturday's final, and the No. 2-seeded Texas Longhorns stormed through to the women's final at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.
But Nilsson's fifth-seeded Waves sent shockwaves through the college tennis world by ending top-seeded North Carolina's 48-match win streak with a 4-3 stunner. On the live Tennis Channel broadcast, it was billed as one of the biggest upsets in college tennis history. The seventh-year Pepperdine coach disagreed.
"If anyone's paid attention the last couple of years, they know that the Waves are one of the premier teams," he said in his post-match press conference. "It just looks odd sometimes in an NCAA sport to see Pepperdine's name up there, maybe.
"I didn't think it was that big of an upset. We didn't feel like that," he continued, before praising Carolina's winning run and their exceptional team and coaching staff.
Playing in their first NCAA final, Pepperdine will be back on the Campus courts at 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday to take on Texas for the national title, with live coverage again on Tennis Channel. The Longhorns powered past No. 6 seed NC State earlier in the day.
The Florida men will also be competing in their first national final, with their showdown against Baylor set to follow the women's trophy presentation. To set up the No. 1 vs. No. 2 title tilt, the Gators shut out defending champs and No. 4 seeds Texas, and the Bears battled past No. 3 Tennessee.
Pepperdine women stun UNC
With back-to-back 4-3 tournament wins, Nilsson's Malibu squad is hitting its stride at precisely the right moment. Compared to the third-set drama of their quarterfinal win over UCLA, their victory over UNC was a stroll.
The Waves took what proved to be a crucial doubles point when the freshman-grad student combo of Taisiya Pachkaleva and Shiori Fukuda scored a 7-5 win at the decisive second doubles spot. That left the No. 5 seeds needing a split of the six singles matches, and as the contest wore in, they looked more and more assured of accomplishing exactly that.
The teams split the opening sets, three apiece, and four matches ended in quick succession as the Tar Heels briefly moved ahead, 3-2, on the big board. Carolina senior Alexa Graham's win on Court 2 was answered by Fukuda on Court 4, followed by UNC wins for Sara Daavettila on Court 1 and Fiona Crawley on 6—all in straight sets.
Pepperdine needed both of the remaining points to complete the upset, but they had the top seeds on the ropes when, at the No. 5 spot, Lisa Zaar took out fifth-year senior and ITA No. 32 Makenna Jones. The 6-4, 6-3 result put Pepperdine on the brink of the final.
"When I saw that Lisa [Zaar] at No. 5 singles was digging in against Makenna [Jones], I started feeling like, ‘OK, wait a minute, we can do this,’ because that's a big point for them.," said Nilsson. "So when I saw that, I felt, ‘OK, we can do this,’ especially being up 1-0 after doubles. And with these guys in the middle of our lineup, we know we have a shot.”
With just Court 3 still in play, Pachkaleva led ITA No. 27 Cameron Morra, 7-6, 5-0... but the junior quickly closed to 5-3.
That put the pressure on the Pepperdine freshman, who was in a position to match her doubles partner's clinching performance from two days prior. With poise beyond her years, Moscow's Pachkaleva finished the job with a ripped forehand return winner, sparking now-familiar scenes of celebration for the Waves.
Baylor men edge Tennessee, 4-2, on fifth match point
In the day's closest contest, Baylor recovered from dropping the doubles point and the opening singles point to reach its first national title match since 2005.
The Volunteers took doubles by winning simultaneous deuce points on the top two courts, one on serve and one on the return. But after Giles Hussey gave the Vols a 2-0 lead with a breezy win at No. 5, the Bears leveled through straight-sets wins from Sven Lah and Spencer Furman at 3 and 6.
A spot in the championship match would be determined by the three remaining flights, all of which were in deciding sets. On Court 4, Nick Stachowiak saved two break points at 5-4—the first on a narrow Tennessee miss, and the second with an inside-out forehand winner on a sudden-death point that doubled as match point.
Now ahead 3-2, Baylor held a one-break lead on Courts 1 and 2 as they closed in on the final, their hopes resting on top dogs Adrian Boiton and Matias Soto. Like the Vols in doubles, the Bears held simultaneous match points in singles. But when Tennessee saved three of them to get back on serve on both courts, it was once again anyone's match.
“Honestly, I felt like we were in a really good position [at that point]," said Baylor head coach Michael Woodson. "Even though we had opportunities in both matches and kind of let them go a couple times, I feel like we went for our shots, and that’s all we can ask of those guys. They trusted themselves in the big moments and we came out on top. The fact that [our top two guys] were out there together made a huge difference, and credit to both of them for fighting, just hanging in there."
While Tennessee's Adam Walton held serve to make it 5-all on Court 1 against Boitan, Baylor junior Soto's experience was beginning to tell against Johannus Monday one court over.
In the end, a Soto forehand winner—on the Bears' fifth dual-match point—earned him a 7-6, 4-6, 7-5 victory and the clinch.
"It was a bit of a wild match, but we just trusted that we were going to be able to get the job done, frankly," added Woodson. "I felt a lot of confidence in those guys in those situations with the match on their racquet and they’re going to be able to come through, and as long as they trusted themselves we’d be willing to live with the result.
"I definitely think it was one of the more wild matches, and I feel like the best part about it was that we really didn’t show many nerves through most of it. Sometimes you get into those situations and it’s an error-fest from both teams and nobody can hold serve. It really didn’t feel that way at the end, which kind of makes it feel a little bit more normal, to be honest, not like a national semifinal.”
Florida men shut out defending champs Texas
A 2019 NCAA semifinal rematch closed out the evening slate, with Florida playing in the nightcap for the second straight day. Gaining a measure of revenge, the Gators took the doubles point and a trio of straight-sets singles wins to advance to the program's first national title match in their fourth final four attempt.
"I think it was just a great team effort," said head coach Bryan Shelton. "All night long, I felt like we were just really composed and we played the big points really well. I think that there was a lot of belief in our team and in the doubles play."
The 4-0 win started with a tight doubles point that was clinched at the No. 2 spot by Sam Riffice and Ben Shelton, who won, 6-4, after the Gators ran away with a 6-2 third doubles win courtesy of Will Grant and Brian Berdusco.
"Getting that doubles point gave us a lot of confidence," coach Shelton continued. "And then going into the singles, which has been our strength all season long, especially with our depth, I think our whole team felt like we had a good chance to to really secure a win tonight. Up and down the line, I didn't think anyone really let anything get away, one through six."
The younger Shelton—the son of the UF head coach—then sparked the Gators in singles with a speedy 6-3, 6-0 win over Chih Chi Huang at No. 5. After a brief rain delay, Blaise Bicknell won a sudden-death point at 5-all in the second set en route to a 6-3, 7-5 victory that put Florida up 3-0.
With the Gators one point away from the final, Duarte Vale and Andy Andrade were both closing in on the clincher. The defending champs hung in, saving match point on both courts, but ITA No. 18 Andrade prevented a potentially nervy finale by wrapping up a 6-3, 7-5 win over Siem Woldeab.
With the Gators' Gainesville campus just a two-hour drive away, Florida fans flooded the stands, providing a home-court feel for the top seeds.
"It's a very big thing for the players, for the team, just seeing the crowd," Andrade reflected. "And especially when you win a big point, just seeing they're pretty much just going crazy when you win a big point. So seeing the reaction just makes you feel good.
"The fact that we're a Florida team, so the fact that we have more of a crowd, I would say, than the other team helps us a lot. And that just gives us confidence too. The extra support, the extra little boost just helps us a lot."
Texas women steamroll NC State, 4-0
The Longhorns were dominant in their second straight 4-0 victory, winning all 11 completed sets against No. 6 seed North Carolina State. A pair of 6-4 doubles sets on Court 1 and 3 set the tone, and then—as they did in the quarters against FSU—Texas won the opening set on all six singles courts, with no one dropping more than three games.
"I think today, I would say I didn't see that malaise that I talked about in the last two rounds, once we got up," said coach Hoawrd Joffe. "We won the first set in all six [singles] matches, and we really put our foot on the gas. The level of poise that these young people are bringing knocks my block off, because I'm an old guy, and I don't have as much poise as what they do.”
After giving Florida State life from the same position two days ago, Texas made no mistake this time as they raced to three straight-sets victories in short order. At the top spot, Freshman Peyton Stearns was first across the line with a 6-1, 6-2 win over ITA No. 6 Anna Rogers, followed by Charlotte Chavatipon on Court 4. The clincher came from Malaik Rapolu on Court 6, ensuring a short day at the office for the Longhorns.
While NC State closes the book on a historic season and a program-best NCAA run, Texas moves on to the national title match for the fifth time, seeking a third title. The Longhorns last reached this stage in 2005, when they finished as runner-up.
“I think success has sort of... if I can use the imagery of a heat-seeking missile," offered Joffe. "You need to have the intention and expect that you're going to do well, and then you have a way of finding the success. It's definitely a team that, from the outset, the intention has been to win."
For more on the 2021 NCAA Championships, including tune-in information, live scoring, and tickets, visit the tournament homepage on USTANationalCampus.com.