The No. 11 Stanford women's tennis team dramatic attempt at an NCAA championship repeat came to an end on Monday afternoon in a hard-fought, 4-3, semifinal loss to No. 7 North Carolina on the McWhorter courts at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Two of Stanford's three losses this season, both by 4-3 scores, were to the teams playing for the NCAA title. The Cardinal beat the Golden Bears in two of three meetings this season.
UCLA beat No. 8 seed Florida in its semifinal match to advance into the championship round.
Defending champion Stanford (20-3) entered this year's postseason as a double-digit seed for the second straight season and managed to reach the NCAA semifinals for the fourth time in five years despite the early departure of back-to-back defending NCAA singles champion Nicole Gibbs, and using three freshmen in the lineup.
(Last year's team, led by Gibbs, currently ranked 165th on the WTA tour, also had to overcome the early departure of a star player to the pro ranks).
Dramatic upset victories over No. 6 California and No. 3 Virginia conjured up memories of last year's NCAA championship run, in which Stanford became the lowest seed ever, at No. 12, to capture an NCAA title following a 4-3 win over Texas A&M.
Stanford had won nine straight NCAA tournament matches when seeded lower than its opponent.
The Cardinal came up short in its quest to repeat as national champions for the first time since an undefeated three-year stretch from 2004-06.
"They were very tough. We had some chances," Cardinal coach Lele Forood said. "We couldn't capitalize on some things. It's tough when you lose a doubles point before you have singles. As it goes, we found three and we couldn't find the fourth."
North Carolina, reaching the title match for the first time in school history (just like Texas A&M last year), proved worthy opponents.
The Tar Heels had their own star freshmen, which included top-ranked Jamie Loeb, to lead the way. Loeb fell to Stanford senior Kristie Ahn in a first set tiebreaker, and then bounced back to record the clinching victory, 6-7 (4), 6-0, 6-0.
Loeb, unbeaten since February, handed Stanford's lone senior, on the singles ladder, just her fourth dual loss of the year.
"By the end Jamie was just pretty unconscious," Forood said. "Kristie was heroic in her first set, and that was a good start, but Jamie just started to just kick it up a bit."
North Carolina, at 29-5 the national leader in wins, won the doubles point and eventually built a 3-1 lead. The Tar Heels were coming off their own upset, having beaten No. 2 Alabama, 4-2, in the quarterfinal.
In fact, all four semifinalists recorded "upsets" to get that far. Florida, a team Stanford beat 7-0 earlier in the season, knocked off No. 1 Georgia and the Bruins beat No. 2 Duke to avenge an earlier loss.
The Tar Heels extended their lead to 2-0 when fellow rookie Hayley Carter, ranked No. 5 in the country, defeated Krista Hardebeck, 6-2, 6-1, at the No. 2 spot.
Taylor Davidson put Stanford on the board with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Whitney Kay at the No. 4 position, cutting North Carolina's lead to 2-1. It was Davidson's 25th win of the year and third in as many matches.
North Carolina increased its advantage to 3-1 following Caroline Price's 6-4, 6-4 triumph over Carol Zhao at the No. 3 spot. The difference was Price's ability to convert pivotal games in both sets when the score was tied at 4-4.
Freshman Caroline Doyle notched her team-leading 33rd victory with a 6-2, 6-3 triumph over Tessa Lyons at the No. 6 spot, followed by Ellen Tsay, who hung on for a 6-2, 7-6 (4) win against Kate Vialle on court five.
With the match knotted at 3-3, the attention shifted back to the No. 1 spot, where Ahn had become the first player to win a set from Loeb since early March.
Loeb ultimately proved too tough, gaining her 50th victory of the year. It was also the second time Loeb had defeated Ahn this season, with the last meeting in the quarterfinal of the ITA All-American Championships in October.
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