The 20th ranked Rice women's tennis team survived the loss of five of six first sets in singles to earn their second straight berth in the C-USA Women's Tennis Championship match with a grueling 4-1 win over SMU at the John E. Hoff Courts on the campus of the University of Houston on Saturday.
"We knew it was going to be a tough outing coming in," Rice head coach Elizabeth Schmidt said. "We never gave up and the way the team pulled together and fought was tremendous. You had people down on court six yelling to court one, urging each other on. On certain days, different people have to step up. I think our team did an unbelievable job of coming together today and finding a way to push everybody to the limit. It was an unbelievable college tennis match," she added.
The two teams met exactly two weeks early at Jake Hess Tennis Stadium, with Rice taking a 5-2 decision thanks taking a hotly contested doubles point and a pair of three-set singles victories. The two teams quickly served notice that the rematch would be an even more intense version of the first matchup.
The Owls' 20th ranked duo of Natalie Beazant and Dominique Harmath avenged a loss to SMU's 66th ranked Vaszilisza Bulgakova and Aleks Malyarchikova two weeks ago, posting an 8-4 win to finish first. The Mustangs responded with an 8-6 win on court three, but Katie Gater and Liat Zimmermann rallied from a 7-5 deficit to force a tiebreaker, then grabbed the doubles point with a 7-3 win in the deciding game.
SMU shook off the doubles disappointment quickly, racing to first set wins in five of the six singles matches, with only Beazant grabbing the only first set for Rice. Three of the six first sets were extended to tiebreaks, with Beazant emerging with the Owls only win.
As the lengthy match ground on, the Owls rebounded to win second sets on four of the five courts they had dropped opening sets. On Courts Three and Five, Zimmermann and Kimberly Anicete has moved well into third sets before SMU could tie the score with a straight set win on Court Six.
They closed out their matches to move the Owls to a 3-1 lead. Beazant appeared to be in position to apply the clinching point, but Malyarchikova broke Beazant's 27-set winning streak by taking a second-set tiebreaker to force a third set.
The focus then shifted to Court Two where Harmath had shaken off a 7-5 first set loss to take the second set 6-2 and held a 5-1 lead in the third set over Edyta Cieplucha. But Cieplucha would not go quietly, cutting the lead to 5-4. Haramth then fought off repeated break points, before finally ending the match 4:40 after it began and sending the Owls to a rematch with Tulsa in the conference final.
The 24th ranked Golden Hurricane reached the finals by outlasting No. 33 Memphis 4-3 in a match last fell just 13 minutes short of matching the length of the Rice match. The title match will feature a pair of matchups of the conference's top singles and doubles teams. The match will open with the doubles showdown between Rice's 20th ranked Beazant and Harmath and TU's 21st ranked Samantha Vickers and Isaura Enrique In singles, Vickers is ranked 14th and will face off against Beazant, who entered C-USA play ranked 47th.
The Owls fell to Tulsa 4-2 last year to win the C-USA title and defeated the Owls 5-2 indoors in Tulsa earlier this year.
"It's going to be a tremendous match, "Schmidt predicted. "We've always had great battles with them. I think we've played better and better as the season has gone along. I think you're going to see a really great tennis match tomorrow and we're excited to play them again. Both teams are in top form and it's going to be a battle," she concluded.
Tennis Match Results
SMU vs. Rice
4/20/2013 at Houston, Texas
(John E. Hoff Courts)
#20 Rice 4, #51 SMU 1
1. #43 Natalie Beazant (RICE) vs. #74 Aleks Malyarchikova (SMU) 7-6 (7-0), 6-7 (7-9), 2-2, unfinished
2. #70 Dominique Harmath (RICE) def. Edyta Cieplucha (SMU) 5-7, 6-2, 6-3
3. Liat Zimmermann (RICE) def. Vaszilisza Bulgakova (SMU) 3-6, 6-3, 6-2
4. Katie Gater (RICE) vs. Elena Fayner (SMU) 6-7 (3-7), 6-2, 2-4, unfinished
5. Kimberly Anicete (RICE) def. Hristina Dishkova (SMU) 3-6, 6-2, 6-2
6. Yana Erkeeva (SMU) def. Solomiya Zinko (RICE) 6-3, 6-4
1. #20 Natalie Beazant/Dominique Harmath (RICE) def. #66 Vaszilisza Bulgakova/Aleks Malyarchikova (SMU) 8-4
2. Katie Gater/Liat Zimmermann (RICE) def. Hristina Dishkova/Holly Verner (SMU) 9-8 (0-3)
3. Edyta Cieplucha/Elena Fayner (SMU) def. Solomiya Zinko/Daniela Trigo (RICE) 8-6
SMU 14-10; National ranking #51
Rice 18-4; National ranking #20
Order of finish: Doubles (1,3,2); Singles (6,3,5,2)