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2023 NCAA Championships: UNC, NC State rivalry to be renewed in D1 women's final
The next chapter of the storied in-state rivalry between the women's tennis teams at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University will be written Saturday night at the USTA National Campus in the 2023 Division I national championship match.
The two North Carolina schools each won their semifinals 4-0 on Friday night to set up a mouth-watering championship clash in less than 24 hours, with first serve scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Saturday evening in Orlando.
"Once a year, generally, you get to play your rival, and this will be the third time this year. For that to happen in a national championship match is pretty unique," NC State head coach Simon Earnshaw said. "I think it's the match people want. It's definitely the match that we want. It's going to be great. ... I think for women's college tennis, it's the right final for this season."
Third-seeded NC State toppled No. 7 Stanford thanks in part to the efforts of their two top players: freshman Diana Shnaider and graduate student Alana Smith. The two teamed for a 6-3 win at No. 1 doubles, helping NC State to set the tone for the night with the doubles point, and won at the top two singles flights in contrasting fashion.
At No. 1, Shnaider rolled to a 6-1, 6-0 win over Alexandra Yepifanova, the girls' singles finalist at the 2019 US Open, while Smith recorded a 7-5, 7-5 win over Connie Ma at the No. 2 spot to clinch the team's win.
While Shnaider, whose successful season in Raleigh while holding a Top 100 WTA ranking has been well-documented, is set to turn professional and will head to Paris after Saturday's championship to compete at Roland Garros, her exploits so far in Orlando have been the stuff of legend: She's lost just one game in her two singles matches.
"It's not realistic for every match to be that way, and certainly that's not the goal. But she feels really comfortable on these courts," Earnshaw said. "... When you feel good, good things happen and, and for one reason or another, the opponents haven't managed to push her at this point.
"She's really good, she has a great attitude and she loves the school. Obviously, she's gotten a lot out of this as well, because [in] her game, we can see it. She's really elevated her game. No matter what happens tomorrow going into the French Open, I think she's going to be in good shape. That’s all we can do; if we can pass something on better than we got it, that's going to be the goal."
Smith admitted after the match that she didn't think she'd be in a position to clinch, having built a 5-0 lead in the second set. Pegged back even to 5-5, the three-time All-American steadied herself from there to put NC State into its first-ever national championship match.
"Dave [assistant coach David Secker] was trying to calm me down, telling me, ‘It's okay, you're still on serve,’ and everything," Smith said. "It was definitely surreal in that moment. I even joked with Dave, even when she started coming back, I was like, ‘Oh, I just did that just so I could clinch the match,’ but I'm glad I could do that in my last year.
"I was just saying to myself, ‘Well, I can't lose my serve two times in a row, three times in a row.’ I feel like that was just what I kept saying in my head. I think I lost it two times in a row. Thank goodness I didn't lose it three times in a row. Dave was just there telling me, ‘It's okay, you're still on serve, you're still up a break,’ and stuff like that. It was just my mistakes on my side, so I knew if I could control that, I could get the opportunity to win the games, which I finally did at 5-all."
Meanwhile, the top-ranked Tar Heels sent longtime Georgia head coach Jeff Wallace into retirement with a sweep of the third-seeded Bulldogs. (Wallace, in the role since 1986, said earlier this month that this season would be his last.) The Tar Heels' doubles pairs of Fiona Crawley and Abbey Forbes, and Elizabeth Scotty and Carson Tanguilig, dropped a combined three combined games at the top two flights for the point, and straight-sets wins at No. 1, No. 3 and No. 5 singles put UNC into its first title match since 2014.
"I’m just proud of this team. Proud of this accomplishment," head coach Brian Kalbas said. "It's tough to get to the finals. ... We've had a lot of really good teams, and this is truly a special team. To get to the finals with this team is just remarkable, special, incredible, so many adjectives. This team is very close. They're connected. You know, if you’re around our program a lot, you know that well. There's just something really unique and special about this team than any other team that we've had in a long time."
Having already tasted national glory last year as the NCAA individual doubles champion with Makenna Jones, Scotty put the Tar Heels within touching distance of a team title with a 6-4, 6-4 win over Anastasiia Lopata in the fifth slot.
"It's always great to be the clinch, but I always say anyone who's competing on the court has such an impact," Scotty said. "Everyone on the sidelines has such an impact. … I was like, ‘I just want to be the first point on the board, that means I'm doing my job well.’ But anything to help this team, it always feels really good."
Not only is the trophy at stake on Saturday night, but bragging rights are, too: The two teams split their previous two meetings this season. The Tar Heels were 7-0 winners in the regular season on April 6, but the Wolfpack got revenge, 4-1, on April 23 in the ACC Championship.
For more information, including tickets, draws and schedule, visit the USTA's NCAA Championships homepage. For all the latest news from the Division I, II and III tournaments, visit USTA.com's news landing page for the event.
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