Florida seniors Lauren Embree (Marco Island, Fla.) and Caroline Hitimana (Waterloo, Belgium) stepped up and led the Gators to a hard-fought 4-2 win against California and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA Championships played at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex at the Atkins Tennis Center on Sunday afternoon.
Embree and Hitimana have helped the Gators reach the ‘Final Four’ each of their four years, as Florida will be playing the NCAA Semifinals for the 23rd time in the last 27 years.
“It feels great to be back in the semifinals,” shared Embree, who produced wins on the singles and doubles courts Sunday and improved to 34-2 in NCAA dual match singles and doubles play. “Cal is a really tough team and played great. There were some close doubles matches and we were fortunate to pull it out.”
After the Golden Bears (19-6) captured the doubles win on court two for the first individual result of the dual match, the Gators remained focused and the freshman pair of Danielle Collins (St. Petersburg, Fla.) and Brianna Morgan (Beverly Hills, Calif.) earned an 8-4 win on court three before the veteran pair of Embree and junior Sofie Oyen (Leopoldsburg, Belgium) clinched the doubles point with an 8-4 decision.
Florida carried that momentum onto the singles courts early, where the Gators
won the first set on four of the six courts and seemed in control. The Bears, however, battled back and evened the team scoring when fifth-ranked Zsofi Susanyi handed No. 51 Alexandra Cercone (Seminole, Fla.) a 6-1, 6-1 setback that halted the Gator junior’s 12-match win streak in addition to handing Cercone her first ever loss in 11 NCAA dual match singles contests.
“I thought we played very well in doubles and I was pleased with that,” UF head coach Roland Thornqvist said. “Other than court three where Zsofi Susanyi played out of her mind, we started off well. The momentum switched a little bit and it was nice to see our seniors carry the load for us today.”
Embree gave Florida the 2-1 lead when she took down eighth-ranked Anett Schutting, 6-2, 6-0, in one hour and 25 minutes. The nation’s top-ranked singles player opened the match with a break and never lost her serve throughout the match en route to her 21st consecutive singles victory, as well as her 39th straight in dual match play, while improving to 26-1 overall this year.
“I had a game plan going in and I tried to stick with that,” shared Embree, who served out at love in the only game lasting four points. “Our points were long and most of the games were, too. There were a couple points I was fortunate enough to win and just came out on top.”
Junior Olivia Janowicz (Palm Bay, Fla.) moved Florida one win from victory when she defeated Tayler Davis 6-1, 6-1 on court five in one hour and 40 minutes. The Gator junior jumped out to a 3-0 lead behind a pair of breaks. She dropped her serve in the fourth game, but got it right back in the next game en route to winning the final three games to take the first set. The two competitors were on serve through the first four games of the second set, when Davis collected a break for a 3-2 lead. Janowicz broke right back and held at love for the 4-3 lead. The eighth game proved to be a battle that lasted seven minutes and Davis managed to hold, before Janowicz held at love for the third time during the match for a 5-4 lead. She then earned one final break to earn her 15th consecutive singles victory and improved to a team-best 36-6 this season.
“Olivia’s really hitting on all cylinders right now,” Thornqvist praised. “She’s been automatic in her play. She manages herself really well and keeps great composure. She’s almost like a senior in her play, she’s very steady. She doesn’t get enough credit for her play like some of the players in the other positions. The way she’s playing and staying focused in her play is very helpful for the Gators.”
“It was a really tough match,” Janowicz said. “We got things going quickly and it looked in our favor. Then it started getting really close and I realized that they needed me and I wanted to finish as quick as I could to help us out.
“She didn’t change how she played through the entire match,” Janowicz continued. “The first set, I stayed super consistent and stuck with my game plan. Then in the second I wasn’t doing those same things. I went back to the old plan.”
One minute later, Cal
struck with a 7-5, 6-4 win on court two where Klara Fabikova defeated Oyen and the Gator’s lead was trimmed, 3-2.
Attention turned to courts four and six with Florida needing to win just one of those two matches for a spot in the NCAA Semifinals.
Morgan won her first set against Lynn Chi, but dropped the second and the two where in the early stages of the third set of court four, while Hitimana was battling Annie Groansson.
Hitimana won the tight first set 6-3 and found herself down 2-0 to begin the second. She held at love to get on the board and earned the break in a long fourth game that featured duce six times. Hitimana then held at love for the second time in the match and lost just one point in the next game for the break and a 4-2 lead. Her service game in the seventh also went to duce, but Hitimana held for 5-2 and won the first three points on Groansson’s serve en route to the 6-3, 6-2 dual-match clinching victory.
In the highly contested doubles point, Collins and Morgan were on serve through the first five games after they traded breaks against Tayler Davis and Kelly Chui on court three, as Morgan fought off a break point to hold for 3-2. The Gators then earned their second break of the match for 4-2, but couldn’t hold and Cal went to the baseline tyring to get the eight-game pro-set back on serve. The Gators battled right back and earn another break and then fought back in a tough ninth game for the 6-3 lead. Collins blasted a forehand winner down the line at break point for a 7-3 lead. UF wasn’t able to serve out for the victory but capitalized on its second match point, as Morgan slammed an overhead for a winner at the net to seal the win.
On court one, the Embree and Oyen battled Lynn Chi and Schutting, as the match opened with a pair of breaks. The Gators earned the second break in the next game that went to duce 11 times. The fourth game was just as tight, as Embree held on to win the 16-minute game that gave UF a 3-1 lead. The Gators continue that momentum and earned a quick break for the 4-1 advantage, but Cal broke right back and held, before earning another break to even the score at 4-all. The Florida pair was able to capture the break after a six-duce game and Oyen held for a 6-4 lead, as the Gators won the last two games to claim the doubles point.
Top-seeded Florida (26-2) will play No. 12 Stanford (20-4) in the semifinals on Monday at 6 p.m. ET/5 p.m. CT. The Cardinal upset No. 4 Georgia, 4-1 in their quarterfinal match.
“We played them in February and thought they were wicked good,” said Thornqvist of the Cardinal. “We played really well to get out of that jam. I had a feeling that they were going to do deep in this tournament. Obviously, we have some of the same matchups that we did back in February so we’ll try to prepare as best we can.”
In the February 24 meeting between Florida and Stanford
, the Cardinal claimed the doubles point before the Gators rallied to win four of the five completed singles matches. A weather delay forced action indoors with the team score tied a 2-all. Courts one, three and four each had to finish inside the newly opened Perry Tennis Facility, where Cercone posted a gutty 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win against No. 10 Krista Hardebeck for the highest-ranked opponent she has defeated in her career, and Morgan provided a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 clinching win over Stacy Tan.
“We always have great, long matches and we’re looking forward to having another one,” Embree shared of the battle between Florida and Stanford.
“Stanford is looking really good right now,” Thornqvist echoed Embree. “We beat them at the beginning of the year, but this is a whole different time of year and the stakes are a lot steeper. It’s going to be really intense.”
Sunday’s win was Florida’s 18th consecutive overall victory, as well as its 16th straight in the NCAA Championships. The Gator’s last postseason loss was a 4-3 decision to Stanford in the 2010 final.
Stanford leads the all-time series against Florida, 17-13, including a 9-3 record in NCAA matchups and all of those matchups have been in either the semifinals or final. The last two postseason meetings both were thrilling 4-3 decisions in the final, with the Gators capturing the 2011 national championship and the Cardinal the 2010 crown.