UNC, Pepperdine, Texas, NC State advance to 2021 NCAA women's semifinals
Two programs made history while the tournament's top two seeds made no mistake on women's quarterfinal day at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.
Pepperdine and North Carolina State both advanced to the final four for the first time, with the Waves winning the match of the day against UCLA and NC State upsetting 2019 finalists Georgia. In between those two contests, No. 2 seed Texas stormed past Florida State with the day's lone shutout. Closing out the evening's play after 1 a.m., the undefeated North Carolina Tar Heels withstood a fierce upset bid from Duke.
After a day of rest while the men's quarterfinals take center stage, Friday's women's semis will see No. 1 UNC take on No. 5 Pepperdine, and Texas battle No. 6 NC State.
UNC survives spirited Duke challenge
The Tar Heels' 48th consecutive victory turned out to be one of the most challenging in their two-year undefeated run. In a match that belied the final 4-1 scoreline, the Blue Devils put a major scare into their crosstown rivals by taking the first set in four singles matches after dropping a doubles point that came down to a 7-5 nail-biter on Court 3. Alle Sanford and Reilly Tran scored the clinching doubles victory for the Chapel Hill outfit.
“They came at us, no doubt," said UNC fifth-year senior Makenna Jones (pictured below), the eventual match-clincher. "When we finished, my partner [Elizabeth Scotty] looked at me and goes, ‘They wanted this.’ So I was just really impressed with the way we handled that, the way that we took their best shot. I was just really proud of the poise we had, especially from our No. 3 doubles when it came down to them."
An early 2-0 Carolina lead was under siege, and shortly after Duke's Chloe Beck beat Cameron Morra on Court 3, Georgia Drummy had two match points of her own to draw her team level. But on Court 2, Alexa Graham erased both on her serve, then sent the match to a decider with a 7-5 tiebreak win as the Tar Heels began to restore order after midnight.
Tran came back from a set down to score UNC's third point at the No. 6 spot, leaving her team's three fifth-year seniors to finish the job—Sara Daavettila at No. 1, Graham at 2 and Jones at 4.
"It was interesting because we had three super seniors there at the end," said head coach Brian Kalbas. "It was comforting to have that kind of experience out there."
ITA No. 2 Daavettila was dragged into a third set by Kelly Chen, while Jones was recovering from dropping the first eight games of her mach against Meible Chi, who previously led, 6-0, 2-0.
Jones' fightback mirrored her team's slog through the singles slate, as she expertly bounced back from some early Duke haymakers to slowly seize control of the proceedings. By the time she closed out her match, 0-6, 6-4, 6-4, both Daavettila and Graham were leading in their respective third sets.
“I give a lot of credit to Duke," Kalbas added. "They played really well. I congratulated Jamie [Ashworth] and he said it's the best they played all year. For them to do that on this stage, as late as we were playing, it was tough. We withstood a lot of talented players playing really well and confident with nothing to lose."
Pepperdine edges UCLA in 4-3 thriller
In a four-hour match with razor-thin margins throughout, the No. 5 seed Pepperdine Waves won the doubles point and two three-set singles matches to advance to the NCAA final four for the first time in program history.
Three tense doubles matches proved to be emblematic of the match as a whole, with the early point coming down to a tiebreak on Court 1 after the teams split two tight sets at the No. 2 and 3 flights.
Ashley Lahey and Lisa Zaar found themselves behind, 6-2, in the breaker, but stayed remarkably loose in saving all four set points and then pulling ahead, 7-6. That set up the point of the day (video below), with UCLA’s Jada Hart fighting off a slew of Pepperdine attacks before punching a volley of her own to draw level.
But the Waves shook it off and ultimately got on the board first with a 10-8 tiebreak victory.
"College tennis is really fun for the crowd because there are so many momentum swings in close matches, and this one had that," said Waves head coach Per Nilsson. "We were down in the doubles and we were able to get that and I thought, ‘Oh this is going to be really fun.'"
The back-and-forth theme continued in singles play, as the schools split the opening six sets, three apiece, with half requiring tiebreakers.
UCLA’s depth gave the Bruins a brief 2-1 lead thanks to a pair of straight-sets wins by Abi Altick and Annette Goulak on Courts 5 and 6, and Elysia Bolton had a chance to extend that lead as she attempted to serve out her No. 3 singles match in the final set. But momentum swung again when Pepperdine’s Taisiya Pachkaleva won three straight games to seal a 6-3, 1-6, 7-5 result—her 23rd consecutive singles win.
Seconds later, ITA No. 21 Jessica Failla got past Jada Hart, 7-6, 6-4, to put Pepperdine one match away from the semis. Following the familiar script, that lead was also short-lived as ITA No. 7 Abbey Forbes outlasted Lahey, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, on Court 1.
That shifted the focus to Court 4, where Pepperdine’s Shiori Fukuda was locked in a third set against Vivian Wolff. Shiori, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, was down love-40 in the 2-all game, but won four straight points to take a 3-2 lead.
"It just happened so fast," said Nilsson, "and then when Shi was the last one we all had confidence in her. She looked really calm and that helped, but it was fun and it could’ve gone either way."
With the momentum on her side, Fukuda never gave it back, winning four straight games to clinch a 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 victory and send Pepperdine into the final four for the first time.
No. 2 Texas rides hot start to shut out Florida State
The Longhorns won their 22nd consecutive match after an explosive start that saw them win the doubles point and then each of the six opening singles sets.
“Last match, we didn’t perform well [after winning the doubles point], so we talked about it,” said senior Fernanda Labraña, who would ultimately clinch the match with a three-set win on Court 6. “Today we were in a good rhythm... In singles, since I was playing very good in doubles, I was just smacking balls in the first set.”
But after dominating early in singles, dropping just 11 combined games across the six first sets, Texas won just two second sets.
On the top two courts, ITA Top 40 players Peyton Stearns (pictured below) and Anna Turati scored straight-sets wins to make it 3-0 on the day. But FSU made inroads on Courts 3-6, forcing a third set at each of the bottom three spots.
With Texas needing just one more victory to clinch the match, Charlotte Chavatipon and Labraña regained control on Court 4 and 6. In what became a race to the finish line, it was Labraña who claimed the glory with a 6-2, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Andrea Garcia, improving her singles record to 23-2 overall on the year, and 16-1 in dual-match play.
“I would say that the program is on a collision course with excellence,” said head coach Howard Joffe. “You’d like to think the force is pretty unstoppable, but I think our players understand that the only thing that really matters is what version of themselves shows up to play in the next match.”
NC State holds on to upset 2019 finalists Georgia
The Wolfpack continues to make program history at the NCAAs. Playing in their first tournament quarterfinal, the No. 6 seeds notched a 4-2 victory over third-seeded Georgia to reach the national semifinals for the first time.
“I think we came into this tournament wanting to win. I don’t think necessarily we 100% believed that we could or would,” said NC State freshman Abigail Rencheli (pictured below), of nearby Sarasota, Fla. “Now that we’re in the semis, it’s definitely getting a lot more real… We didn’t come here to make the semis. We came here to win.”
Rencheli ultimately clinched the match at No. 5 singles, but it was a winding road to victory.
It started with NC State taking a hotly contested doubles point—their seventh straight as a team—thanks in large part to a comeback from Adriana Reami and Jaeda Daniel at the No. 2 spot. After falling behind 3-0, the nation’s No. 5-ranked duo notched a 6-4 victory over Elena Christofi and Morgan Coppoc.
After ITA No. 4 Katarina Jokic defeated No. 6 Anna Rogers, 6-2, 6-2, in a marquee match at the top singles spot, NC State doubles partners Reami and Daniel took care of business at the No. 3 and 4 spots to give their team a commanding 3-1 lead.
Georgia threatened to turn the tables when, in the span of seconds, Christofi clinched her match on Court 6 and Marta Gonzalez had a set point in a Court 5 tiebreak to send that match to a deciding set. But after Gonzalez won three points in a row to turn a 5-3 hole to a 6-5 lead, Renchili ripped a cross-court backhand winner to make it 6-all, then rode that momentum to close out a 6-3, 7-6 victory and send the Wolfpack into the final four.
In windy afternoon conditions in Central Florida, NC State head coach Simon Earnshaw felt his team’s aggressive play made the difference.
“A lot of people ask us, ‘Does that happen by chance?’ No. That’s the way we try and teach these kids,” he said. “I think, particularly in windy conditions, the more you wait for the ball, the more the ball’s going to move around.
“That’s how we practice. It’s not happening by chance. We’re playing that way. That’s our style. That’s the type of players we look for. That’s our mindset, and thankfully we were able to execute today.”
Still to come...
Thursday is men's quarterfinal day, with live coverage starting at 11 a.m. ET on the TennisONE app, and Tennis Channel picking it up for the evening matches at 5:30 p.m. The matchups are:
- 11 a.m. - No. 3 Tennessee vs. No. 11 Georgia (TennisONE)
- 2 p.m. - No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 7 TCU (TennisONE)
- 5:30 p.m. - No. 4 Texas vs. No. 12 USC (Tennis Channel)
- NB 7:30 p.m. - No. 1 Florida vs. No. 8 Texas A&M (Tennis Channel)
Both the women's and men's semifinals will be played on Friday, with the title matches set for Saturday.
For more on the 2021 NCAA Championships, including tune-in information, live scoring, and tickets, visit the tournament homepage on USTANationalCampus.com.