DURHAM, N.C. (South Carolina SID) - The No. 30 South Carolina women's tennis team advanced to the NCAA Tournament second round Friday with a 4-1 victory over No. 35 Ohio State at Ambler Tennis Stadium in Durham, N.C. The Gamecocks (17-10) will take on either No. 5-ranked and national No. 4-seed Duke or East Tennessee State on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the second round. Ohio State finishes the season with a 19-9 record.
"Ohio State was feisty and loud, and it was a battle," South Carolina head coach Kevin Epley said. "It was a lot closer than the final score indicated. This is a great win for our girls and a testament to all the hard work they've put in the past few weeks."
The Gamecocks' 26th-ranked duo of Elixane Lechemia and Dominika Kanakova jumped on No. 62 Noelle Malley and Grainne O'Neill at the No. 1 spot. They took a 3-0 lead to start and then extended the advantage to 7-2 before closing out the match by an 8-3 score. It marked the 10th win of the season for Lechemia and Kanakova and upped their mark at the top position to 10-4.
The doubles point ended up being decided by a pair of tiebreakers at the Nos. 2 and 3 spots. At two, No. 51 Meghan Blevins and Katerina Popova trailed 3-1 early against Gabriella De Santis and Sandy Niehaus, but they fought back to take a 5-4 lead.
OSU then earned a break of serve to lead 6-5, but the Gamecocks broke back and the match stayed on serve to force the tiebreaker. Popova and Blevins saved two match points in the breaker down 6-5 and 7-6, but De Santis and Niehaus received a double fault from Popova up 8-7 to earn the 9-7 victory.
Ximena Siles Luna and Caroline Dailey fell behind Miho Kowase and Ferny Angeles Paz on court three 5-2 after seven games. The duo came sprinting back, though, getting the match to 5-all. Kowase and Paz looked to pick up a break with Siles Luna serving down 7-6, but she held to force the tiebreaker. The points were 4-all after the first eight rallies, but the Gamecocks took control from there. They got a minibreak for a 5-4 advantage and Dailey served it out to give South Carolina the 1-0 edge heading to singles play.
South Carolina remained in the driver's seat in singles by taking the first sets on courts two, four and six. No. 107 Popova cruised to a 6-1 triumph in her first set against Kowase at two, while Blevins had little trouble taking the first from Paz 6-2 at the No. 4 spot. Siles Luna managed to hold off Malley 6-4 at No. 6 singles.
The Buckeyes remained in the match with Niehaus taking the first set from Folland 6-4 at three and Nicole Flower beating Dailey 6-3 at No. 5 singles. The No. 1 match between No. 73 Lechemia and No. 85 De Santis was still in the first tied up at 4-all despite the other five courts being well into the second sets. Lechemia eventually took the first set 6-4 to give the Gamecocks four first sets.
Ohio State tied up the match with Niehaus defeating Brigit Folland 6-4, 6-3 at No. 3 singles. Popova responded soon, though, for the Gamecocks with a 6-1, 6-3 victory against Kowase. It marked the senior's first win since April 4 and snapped a three-match losing streak.
"Popova was fantastic today," Epley said. "She was the bright light of the day and has been struggling a ton lately. These last three weeks, she's the person all the training helped the most. We worked a lot on fitness the last few weeks and now she feels like she can outlast her opponent, and that's big."
With that win, the Gamecocks had a chance to close out the match quickly, as Blevins was up a set and in a tiebreaker for the second and Siles Luna was up a set and 5-3 at six. Blevins and Paz were tied 4-all in the breaker when Paz ran off four straight points to send the match to a third set. Malley then broke Siles Luna to put the second set back on serve at 5-4.
Dailey had forged a 2-0 lead in the third set over Flower by the time Malley picked up the break on Luna and at No. 1 singles, Lechemia recovered from a 2-0 hole to make the score 3-all with De Santis. After Dailey made the score 3-0, Siles Luna broke Malley to take the match 6-4, 6-4 and put South Caroilna within one point of advancing to the second round.
Lechemia appeared to be the best candidate for the clinching point, as she held a 5-3 lead over De Santis when Siles Luna snatched the win at six. De Santis held serve and then Lechemia did likewise in the next game to secure a 6-4, 6-4 triumph. For Lechemia, it marked her team-leading 22nd victory of the season and improved her to 12-5 at No. 1 singles.
"She's been playing well since the match against Alabama in March," Epley said. "It wasn't her best tennis today. She hurt her arm a few weeks ago before SECs and on top of the fact that she hasn't played any competition lately, she looked a little out of sync, but that's to be expected. I think she will be much better tomorrow."
South Carolina has now won at least one round in the NCAA Tournament 19 times in its 24 appearances in the event's 33-year history. The Gamecocks have reached the round of 16 six times and the quarterfinals twice.
Photos by Burton Fowles