URBANA, Ill.- Florida, meet Krista Hardebeck. Stanford, meet Texas A&M. No. 12 Stanford's prized freshman introduced herself to the Stanford-Florida rivalry in a big way on Monday night, clinching a 4-3 victory and spot in Tuesday's national championship match against the No. 3 Aggies, who will be playing for their first crown in school history.
Meanwhile, Stanford (21-4, 8-2 Pac-12) will try to capture its 17th NCAA title and first since 2010.
Florida (26-3, 12-1 SEC) was bidding to three-peat as national champions, but those hopes were derailed by Hardebeck, who notched her team-leading 34th overall victory and displayed incredible composure in a thrilling 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-3 win over Alexandra Cercone at the No. 3 spot.
It was the second straight contest in which Hardebeck had provided the clincher, following up Sunday's three-set triumph in a 4-1 rout of No. 4 Georgia.
It's not a total shock to see tradition-rich Stanford, a program that has compiled 16 NCAA titles and 128 postseason victories, in position to play for all the marbles.
However, Stanford is the lowest-seeded team to reach the championship match since UCLA's runner-up finish also as a No. 12 seed back in 2007. It's really an incredible accomplishment for a squad which lost its No. 2 player and All-American Mallory Burdette in September, as she elected to forego her senior season and begin her pro career. Not to mention, of Stanford's current six-member singles lineup, only Nicole Gibbs and Stacey Tan had competed in (and finished) more than two NCAA Tournament matches prior to this season.
None of that matters now. Stanford keeps defying the odds, having knocked off the tournament's Nos. 5, 4 and 1 seeds in a span of four days.
Stanford raced out to a 3-0 lead before surviving a gutsy effort by the two-time defending champions, who managed to even the match at 3-3 before Hardebeck's clincher.
The Cardinal capture the doubles point for the 22nd time in 25 matches, winning with ease at the top two spots of the lineup by identical 8-3 scores. That 1-0 lead would turn out to be critical, to say the least.
What was expected to be highly-anticipated matchup between arguably two of the best players in college tennis turned into a one-sided clinic. Defending NCAA champion Nicole Gibbs overwhelmed No. 1-ranked Lauren Embree 6-0, 6-1, with Gibbs improving her career May record to 23-1 and sending a clear message that Stanford meant business.
Next door on court two, Kristie Ahn followed with an equally emphatic 6-1, 6-4 victory over Sofie Oyen to put the Cardinal in front 3-0. Ahn has surrendered only six games combined over her last four sets.
Florida wasn't about to go quietly and responded with three straight victories. Brianna Morgan took down Stacey Tan 6-1, 6-3 at the No. 4 spot, Caroline Hitimana defeated Natalie Dillon 1-6, 6-1, 6-0 on court six and Olivia Janowicz outlasted Ellen Tsay 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 at the No. 5 position.
The Janowicz-Tsay match was still in progress while Hardebeck was making her comeback against Cercone. In the second set, Hardebeck actually trailed 5-1 before forcing a tiebreaker in which she eventually prevailed. Tied 3-3 in the deciding set, Hardebeck slammed on the gas and put Cercone away 6-3.
Texas A&M edged No. 7 UCLA 4-3 in the other semifinal, eliminating the possibility of an all Pac-12 final.
Tuesday's NCAA title match is scheduled for 3 p.m. PT, weather permitting. Thunderstorms are expected overnight and into the morning.
No. 12 Stanford 4, No. 1 Florida 3
1) No. 8 Ahn/Gibbs (STAN) d. No. 11 Embree/Oyen (FLA) 8-3
2) No. 28 Tan/Tsay (STAN) d. Cercone/Hitimana (FLA) 8-3
3) Danielle Collins/Morgan (FLA) led Dillon/Hardebeck (STAN) 6-3
Order of Finish: 1, 2
1) No. 13 Nicole Gibbs (STAN) d. No. 1 Lauren Embree (FLA) 6-0, 6-1
2) No. 25 Kristie Ahn (STAN) d. No. 17 Sofie Oyen (FLA) 6-1, 6-4
3) No. 14 Krista Hardebeck (STAN) d. No. 51 Alexandra Cercone (FLA) 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 6-3
4) No. 89 Brianna Morgan (FLA) d. No. 103 Stacey Tan (STAN) 6-1, 6-3
5) No. 123 Olivia Janowicz (FLA) d. No. 92 Ellen Tsay (STAN) 6-2, 3-6, 6-4
6) Caroline Hitimana (FLA) d. Natalie Dillon (STAN) 1-6, 6-1, 6-0
Order of Finish: 1, 2, 4, 6, 5, 3
NOTES: Stanford improved to 18-13 all-time against Florida and 10-3 during the postseason ... Monday's semifinal was a rematch from earlier in the year, when Florida defeated Stanford 4-2 in Gainesville back on Feb. 24. During that match, Cercone defeated Hardebeck 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, with the conclusion of that match being shifted indoors ... Nicole Gibbs is now 7-2 in her career against Florida ... Krista Hardebeck improved to 6-3 in three-set matches and her six clinchers rank second on the team to Ellen Tsay (7) ... Texas A&M (26-3, 12-1 SEC) suffered its losses against Florida (4-1), Georgia (4-2) and North Carolina (4-0). The Aggies feature a singles lineup with two seniors, one junior and three freshmen ... Tuesday's national championship match will be webcast on www.ncaa.com.
Stanford Head Coach Lele Forood
"We knew Florida, having played them already this year and in the previous postseasons. We knew they were going to battle like no other in the singles. Nothing was going to be easy just because we had the doubles point. Nicole (Gibbs) played beautifully, just beautifully. I didn't get to see Kristie (Ahn), but she must have been pretty close to on top of her game. We battled as much as we could."
Stanford freshman Krista Hardebeck
"In the third set, I could tell she was maybe getting a little tired. I just told myself to really keep pressing. I knew that the longer I could keep her out here was going to be to my benefit. I knew once it got to 3-3, that I had a really good chance to outlast her."
Stanford junior Nicole Gibbs
"I'm still in shock. I was not expecting that kind of victory. Honestly, I felt like I was out there fighting for every game because Lauren Embree doesn't give you any room for messing around. If I had let her in during the first set or second set, she would have clawed her way back into the match. I was really disciplined to the game plan I came in with, and that was able to keep me calm and centered when I was down."