Texas narrowly defeats Pepperdine to win 2021 NCAA women's title
The Texas Longhorn women won their first NCAA title since 1995—and the program's first under sixth-year head coach Howard Joffe—by virtue of a 4-3 win over fifth-seeded Pepperdine on Saturday at the USTA National Campus. After riding a pair of shutout victories to advance to the title match, the No. 2 seeds got all they could handle in a four-hour thriller of a final in Orlando, Fla.
In the season of the "super senior," with the shortened spring 2020 campaign not counting against eligibility years, the 2021 championship match came down to two freshmen in Texas' Lulu Sun and Pepperdine's Taisiya Pachkaleva. In a high-quality No. 3 singles battle, the level of both competitors only increased as the pressure ratcheted up, with each firing a slew of winners down the stretch. Both teams had a hand on the trophy with the deciding set finely poised at 5-all, but it was Sun, of Geneva, Switzerland, who brought the title home with a 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 victory.
"There was just so little between the two teams,” said Joffe. “In a way, when Lulu won the final point, it was a little bit of disbelief, elation and disbelief, because... you can throw together six of the best players out there in the country and you're just guaranteed nothing.
"I just had a good sense that, and again, this is not a scientific word, but the juju of this team was very good. And I felt like one way or the other, we'd get over the line today. But the idea that we'd actually get to the final with the obstacles and the difficulty and the inexperience, it really is a pretty remarkable dream.”
Texas won both singles three-setters on the day, including a 2-6, 6-0, 6-2 decision for tournament Most Outstanding Player Peyton Stearns over Ashley Lahey on Court 1. But it may never have gotten that far, had the Longhorns not saved two match points at the No. 1 doubles spot earlier in the dual match.
The Waves took No. 2 doubles with ease, and were on the verge of taking the opening point before Sun and Kylie Collins stormed back to deny Lahey and Lisa Zaar on Court 1. The freshman duo at No. 1 would go on to win a 7-3 tiebreak, putting the doubles point on the racquets of another freshman duo—Stearns and Charlotte Chavatipon—at No. 3. Again it would be Texas in a tiebreak, this one 7-5, as they escaped with the early advantage.
Pepperdine responded by taking four of the six opening singles sets, but Texas extended its lead to 2-0 with a dominant win by Chavatipon at No. 4. From there, the Waves began to gain momentum as Jessica Failla and Zaar leveled the overall count with wins on Court 2 and 5. Failla, a grad student from Ramona, Calif., defeated senior Anna Turati in that second singles match, with the Italian the lone senior in a Longhorns singles lineup that featured five freshmen.
On Court 1, the red-hot Stearns won eight games in a row to turn a one-set hole into a 2-6, 6-0, 2-0 lead, as the Texas men's team provided vocal support from the sideline. There were four deuce games in the opening five games of the final set, and Stearns took three of them to open up a 3-2 Longhorn lead. From there, she closed it out with a run of three straight games, putting her team one match away from glory.
Soon after, Pepperdine's Nikki Redelijk converted on her third match point to seal a 6-4, 7-5 win on Court 6 and set up a sudden-death situation on Court 3, where Pachkaleva held an early 1-0 lead over Sun in the deciding set.
With all eyes on her court, Sun found the range on her forehand to take a 2-1 lead behind a barrage of winners. She threatened to break in the ensuing game, but Pachkaleva saved three break points to hold from 15-40.
Both women held serve on sudden-death points to reach 4-3, before Sun was able to edge in front with a break for 5-3. In an unrelenting display of clean, aggressive hitting from both sides of the net, Pachkaleva was able to strike first with her back against the wall to level the set at 5-all.
As the tension crescendoed, a love hold from Sun righted the ship for 6-5. Once again serving to stay alive, Pachkaleva fired an ace at 15-all... but that would prove to be her final point of the night. At 30-all, Pepperdine missed a potential winner by inches to bring up match point, and Sun brought the title to Texas by reeling off the match's final three points.
“Honestly, at the end I was almost going to cramp," Sun said, when asked if she allowed herself to think about the fact that her match would decide the national title. "So I was just [trying to] survive the last few games and just throw everything I have. And I guess it worked.”
Added Joffe: "There was just so little between the two teams and that our freshmen, who it came down to in the end in Peyton and Lulu, were able to come up with the goods is truly remarkable.”
Texas finalizes the season with a 31-1 record, their lone loss coming to a North Carolina squad that saw its 48-match winning streak snapped by the Waves in the NCAA semis. With five freshman in their championship singles lineup, the future is bright for the Longhorns, who are now riding a 24-match win streak of their own.
Women's All-Tournament Team
No. 1 Singles: Peyton Stearns, Texas (Most Outstanding Player)
No. 2 Singles: Jessica Failla, Pepperdine
No. 3 Singles: Lulu Sun, Texas
No. 4 Singles: Charlotte Chavatipon, Texas
No. 5 Singles: Lisa Zaar, Pepperdine
No. 6 Singles: Fiona Crawley, North Carolina
No. 1 Doubles: Kylie Collins/Lulu Sun, Texas
No. 2 Doubles: Taisiya Pachkaleva/Shiori Fukuda, Pepperdine
No. 3 Doubles: Charlotte Chavatipon/Peyton Stearns, Texas