Liat Zimmerman and Solomiya Zinko provided just the remedy 26th ranked Rice needed after a sluggish start in singles, rallying from first-set losses to win their final two sets and provide the final points in a 5-2 win over 51st ranked SMU at Jake Hess Tennis Stadium on Saturday.
Zimmerman overcame a first set loss, then rallied from a 4-3 deficit to provide the clinching point, while Zinko fought off match points in the second set to force a third, then raced past SMU's Holly Verner 6-0 in the third to close out the day.
The win was the 11th consecutive for the Owls (16-4) who will close out the regular season next Saturday vs. Utah.
"It was another battle and a great, great match," Rice head coach Elizabeth Schmidt said. "We knew coming in that SMU was going to be tough. They have lost a couple tough 4-3 matches and they have beaten Tulsa, who we lost to earlier this year. We knew we were going to be tested, and we sure were."
The challenges began early when the Mustangs No. 1 doubles team of Vaszilisza Bulgakova and Aleks Malyarchikova ended the 13-match winning streak of Rice's Natalie Beazant and Dominique Harmath with an 8-6 win. Rice's 17th ranked duo trailed from the start and were not able to surge at the end of the match.
With the Owls No. 3 pairing of Daniela Trigo and Zinko posting an 8-5 win, the doubles point came down to a tight battle on Court 2, where Zimmermann and Katie Gater broke serve in the 16th game to win their match and give Rice a 1-0 lead, 9=7.
The importance of the doubles point quickly became apparent after the Mustangs won four of six first sets in singles, forcing the Owls to rely on at least one comeback to extend their winning streak.
"Our team did a fantastic job of continuing to fight no matter what the scoreboard said," Schmidt stated. " After you lose four of six first sets, it would be easy to get down on yourself, but this team didn't do that. It's what they've been doing all year. They continued to fight and played within themselves."
Beazant rebounded from her doubles frustrations to score Rice's second point with a 6-4, 6-2 win over 119th ranked Edyta Cieplucha, which extended Beazant's winning streak in singles to 13 matches and raised her record vs. ranked opponents to 6-2.
"I think if you asked Natalie, she'd tell you she didn't play her best in doubles today, but that's what makes a player great," Schmidt stated. "They're able to step up and shake off a tough match and comeback ready to go. To be able to do what she did against a tough opponent just shows why she is the player that she is."
Kimberly Anicete gave the Owls their second first set win and emerged with a straight set win for the Owls third point, but it was far from easy. She trailed for most of her first set before staging a late run and remained in a close battle throughout.
"Kim played from behind pretty much the whole first set," Schmidt said. "But she is as mentally tough as they come."
According to Schmidt, that trait was on display on each court during the nearly four hour match.
"There was a lot of fight, a lot of heart and a lot of composure and I am really proud of the team for the effort that they put out there today. SMU played a great match as well. It was another match that is what college tennis is all about," Schmidt concluded.
Tennis Match Results
SMU vs. Rice
4/6/2013 at Houston, Texas
(Jake Hess Tennis Stadium)
#26 Rice 5, #51 SMU 2
1. #62 Natalie Beazant (RICE) def. #119 Edyta Cieplucha (SMU) 6-4, 6-2
2. #77 Aleks Malyarchikova (SMU) def. #72 Dominique Harmath (RICE) 6-2, 6-2
3. Liat Zimmermann (RICE) def. Vaszilisza Bulgakova (SMU) 4-6, 6-2, 6-4
4. Elena Fayner (SMU) def. Katie Gater (RICE) 6-3, 6-0
5. Kimberly Anicete (RICE) def. Hristina Dishkova (SMU) 7-5, 6-4
6. Solomiya Zinko (RICE) def. Holly Verner (SMU) 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0
1. Vaezilisza Bulgakova/Aleks Malyarchikova (SMU) def. #17 Natalie Beazant/Dominique Harmath (RICE) 8-6
2. Katie Gater/Liat Zimmermann (RICE) def. Hristina Dishkova/Holly Verner (SMU) 9-7
3. Daniela Trigo/Solomiya Zinko (RICE) def. Edyta Cieplucha/Yana Erkeeva (SMU) 8-5
SMU 11-9/2-2; National ranking #51
Rice 16-4/2-1; National ranking #26
Order of finish: Doubles (3,1,2); Singles (2,1,4,5,3,6)