May 12, 2012
With an overflow crowd cheering on the favored hosts, the Rice women's tennis once again summoned a performance to remember, routing 16th ranked Ole Miss in a pair of crucial third sets to shock the Rebels 4-2 and earn the Owls their first berth in the NCAA Women's Tennis Sweet 16 on Saturday night.
The Owls (18-8) will move on to face top-ranked UCLA at 9 a.m. on Thursday at the NCAA Championships in Athens, Georgia.
"I don't think I have the words that can do justice to the effort we gave on the courts tonight," Rice head coach Elizabeth Schmidt said. "Nothing I could say right now could come close to describe the incredible heart and fight that each member of the team showed out there."
With the scored tied at 2-2 and the Owls having won four of six first sets in singles, Ole Miss battled back to win three of four second sets, including wins of 6-2 and 6-0 on Courts 2 and 3. But just when it appeared that the higher ranked team would quell the threat of the upstart, the Owls dramatically turned the tables back the other way, winning two of the three third sets to clinch the win.
Dominique Harmath rebounded from a 6-2 loss with a 6-0 blitzing of Caroline Rohde-Moe in the third to move the Owls to within one of the win. Katie Gater, rebounded from a 6-0 blanking in her second set to clinch the match with a 6-1 win in the third.
"The intensity was amazing. The crowd was loud and into the match. You could see both Dominique and Katie were shaking as they were serving for their matches, but that's OK. That showed how much it meant to them," Schmidt said.
Flush with their 4-3 upset of 18th ranked Illinois fresh in their minds, the Owls were facing a Rebel lineup that was anchored by senior Kristi Boxx, who was ranked 9th in the nation in singles and 7th in doubles with Abby Guthrie. The Owls knew they would also have to content with a packed house of Rebel tennis fans eager to send their home team on to the next round.
As if those challenges were not enough, they also had to contend with rainy conditions that left their final venue up in the air until late in the day.
"When we first arrived, we were told we were going to be playing indoors after the men's match was completed (Ole Miss was also hosting a men's tennis regional)," Schmidt said. "But while we were waiting, the skies cleared. The people here ran a tremendous regional, first class in every way and they worked hard to get the outdoor courts ready to play," Schmidt noted.
The doubles point began in relative obscurity since live scoring would not be available until the men's match had concluded. But what Rice fans could not know right away was that the Owls were making an early statement to the Rebels and their fans.
"We knew that the matchup at 1 would be tough, because their team has been so highly ranked all year," Schmidt said. "But Ana (Guzman) and Katie picked up right where they left off on Friday and played another great doubles set to get us on the board quickly. That left it up to Kim and Steph," Schmidt said.
Earlier in the year, Rice's third doubles team of Kimberly Anicete and Stephanie Nguyen held the doubles point against Texas A&M on their serve, only to see it slip away. Less than a week later, the pair redeemed themselves by clinching the doubles point to spark a win over Oklahoma that vaulted the Owls into the national top 30. That hard early lesson in College Station would bear even greater fruit on Saturday night in Oxford as the pair ground out a 9-7 win to give Rice a crucial opening statement against the Rebels.
"In their heartaches and in their triumphs, Kim and Steph have grown so much this year," Schmidt noted. "Everything they experienced prepared them for this moment and they were ready to handle whatever was thrown at them."
After Ole Miss tied the match with a win on Court 6, the Owls turned to their most consistent performer and freshman Natalie Beazant once again delivered.
Boxx was her highest-ranked opponent this season, but the Conference USA Player of the Year was not intimidated, taking the first set 6-1 before closing out the Owls second point with a 6-3 second set. It was her 17th consecutive win, her eighth in nine matches against ranked opponents and ran her record at No. 1 singles to 22-1. Such statistics are sterling, but are merely supporting material to the team efforts of the past two matches.
Anicete seemed poised to deliver the Owls next point, but after building a huge lead with a set in hand, she saw the Rebels' Abby Guthrie mount an impressive comeback of her own to drop the second set 7-5. Guthrie then appeared to take control in the third, leading 4-1 before Anicete mounted yet another charge.
While Gater was eventually clinching the match on Court 2, Anicete was also serving for the match on 5, putting a final exclamation point on a withering third-set performance by the Owls.
As the Owls celebrated their improbable victory, Schmidt could only marvel at the experience of the last two days.
"These two days, these two incredible matches are what college tennis is all about. To see a year's worth of hard work and dedication pay off the way it did, with everything on the line, that's what makes it all worthwhile. I am so proud of everyone on this team. They have earned their trip to Athens and a chance to play another match," Schmidt concluded.
Tennis Match Results
Rice vs Ole Miss
5/12/2012 at Oxford, Mississippi
(Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center)
Rice 4, #16 Ole Miss 2
1. #36 Natalie Beazant (RICE) def. #9 Kristi Boxx (MISS) 6-1, 6-3
2. Dominique Harmath (RICE) def. Caroline Rohde-Moe (MISS) 6-3, 2-6, 6-0
3. Katie Gater (RICE) def. Erin Stephens (MISS) 7-5, 0-6, 6-1
4. Julia Jones (MISS) def. Ana Guzman (RICE) 7-6 (8-6), 6-4
5. Abby Guthrie (MISS) vs. Kimberly Anicete (RICE) 2-6, 7-5, 5-6, unfinished
6. Vivian Vlaar (MISS) def. Stephanie Nguyen (RICE) 6-3, 6-3
1. #7 Kristi Boxx/Abby Guthrie (MISS) def. #26 Natalie Beazant/Dominique Harmath (RICE) 8-5
2. Katie Gater/Ana Guzman (RICE) def. Erin Stephens/Gabby Rangel (MISS) 8-5
3. Kimberly Anicete/Stephanie Nguyen (RICE) def. Julia Jones/Iris Verboven (MISS) 9-7
Rice 18-8; National ranking #39
Ole Miss 18-9; National ranking #16
Order of finish: Doubles (2,1,3); Singles (6,1,4,2,3)
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