UT Duo Earns Spot In NCAA Doubles Final Four
ATHENS, Ga. - Natalie Pluskota and Kata Szekely overcame a 5-3 third-set deficit and won a tiebreaker to defeat Florida's Lauren Embree and Joanna Mather 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (3) on Saturday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, marking the third time in four years that Tennessee will be represented in the NCAA Doubles Tournament Semifinals.
The 10th-ranked Lady Vol duo faces second-seeded Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs (Stanford) in Sunday's semifinal match at 4 p.m. ET.
"Every time, it gets a little more and more special," said Pluskota, who advanced to the tournament's semifinals in 2009 and the championship match in 2010 with Caitlin Whoriskey. "It's definitely a great opportunity. To do it with Kata, a different player, is tremendous and exciting. Hopefully, we can win this next one and go onto the National Championship."
Florida's 22nd-ranked duo broke Szekely's serve to take a 5-3 advantage in the decisive set, but it was the tennis program's 15th All-American who would get the last laugh.
Tennessee quickly broke back and set up a dramatic game with the opportunity to tie the set.
Just as fast as Pluskota and Szekely took a game from Florida, the Gators were seemingly on the verge of doing the same to win the match and advance, but squandered three match points.
After UF scored the first three points of the game (40-0), Tennessee reeled off the next five - using an ace from Pluskota and several big shots from Szekely to tie the set at five, the turning point in the match according to Szekely.
"I really got broke the whole day," Pluskota said. "We just decided to go one point at a time. It was really important for me to get my first serves in to hopefully set up Kata to close out the point. Fortunately, we were able to string a handful of points together and then come back and tie it up."
Embree and Mather held serve for a 6-5 lead and again scored the first two points of the following game to swing momentum back in their favor. The Lady Vols scored five of the next six points to force a tiebreaker, their fourth in three matches at the NCAA Tournament.
Just as they stayed undefeated in 2012 (11-0), they took their game to another level to remain unbeaten in the tournament's tiebreakers.
"I was really confident in the tiebreaker because we had already played three at this tournament and we won all of them," Szekely said. "I knew if we focused on every single point and went by one point at a time, we'd be OK. I was really excited because I felt like once we got to the tiebreaker, we would have more chances than they would."
UF snatched two of the first three points, but Tennessee scored three straight before the duos switched sides.
Florida pulled within 4-3, but every time they thought they had another point, it was the Big Orange duo flying around the court and making plays, culminating in Szekely's match-clinching shot down the line.
"When we started in September, this is kind of how we thought the whole season would go," co-head coach Mike Patrick said. "Instead, we've got a great last 10 days. It's been special. These kids will remember some of these things forever. That last shot that Kata hit, she'll never forget for the rest of her life. It's a lot of fun."
The pairs split two highly-competitive 6-4 sets to force the third frame, with Tennessee taking the opening stanza. Each team got out to 4-1 leads in the first two sets. Florida came back in the first set and got within 4-3 and 5-4, before the Lady Vols took the advantage. UT won three consecutive games to tie the second set, 4-4, before Florida forced the thrilling final set.
THE FINAL FOUR
Second-seed Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs (Stanford), 10th-ranked Natalie Pluskota and Kata Szekely (Tennessee), ninth-ranked Courtney Dolehide and Pamela Montez (UCLA) and 27th-ranked Chelsey Gullickson and Nadja Gilchrist (Georgia) are the four duos remaining in the NCAA Doubles Tournament.
The latter two will face-off on the other side of the bracket at 4 p.m. ET for the opportunity to advance to the championship match.
Pluskota's two title runs in 2009 and 2010 ended in three-set heartbreaks at the hands of Stanford pair Hilary Barte and Lindsay Burdette, Mallory's older sister.
"Nothing changes," Patrick said of the magnitude of the match. "Your first-serve percentage has to be high. You have to get your returns in play. It's basic things. You can't lose sight of what you do and what you have to stay focused on. The team we're going to play is a great team. We're going to have to try to do everything we can to match them momentum wise, shot-for-shot and point-for-point. We'll have to gut it out the whole way." Pluskota's singles career came to a close Friday, when Gibbs used a 7-6 (1), 7-6 (6) decision to advance in the singles tournament.
Gibbs is also playing in the NCAA Singles Tournament Semifinals on Sunday at Noon ET, facing top-ranked Allie Will (Florida).
BY THE NUMBERS
2/9: Florida's Embree/Mather duo only lost nine total matches during their time playing together for the Gators. Two of those came to Natalie Pluskota and Kata Szekely. UT's tandem also bested the Gator couple at the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships last November.
1: After becoming the first Lady Vol to reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Doubles Championships three times, Pluskota extended that feat by becoming the first to reach the semifinals three times. She advanced to the semifinals as a freshman in 2009 with Caitlin Whoriskey, and the duo followed it up by reaching the championship match the following year.
3: Pluskota and Szekely are the third Tennessee duo to reach the semifinals of the NCAA Doubles Tournament, marking the fourth time it's happened in UT history.
11: Consecutive doubles matches that Pluskota and Szekely have won together, owning an 18-1 overall record. Additionally, it marked Szekely's 14th consecutive win in doubles (also winning three with Joanna Henderson) and her 18th win in the last 19.
22: Where Szekely now ranks all-time with 64 doubles wins at Tennessee, a list she'll certainly climb before her time wearing orange is over.
31: Szekely's team-high 31 doubles wins in 2012 rank tied for the 13th-most by a Lady Vol all-time in a single season.
107: Pluskota's 107 career doubles wins rank as the sixth-most in Tennessee history.
HOW THEY GOT HERE...
QF: Pluskota/Szekely (UT) def. Lauren Embree/Joanna Mather (Florida) 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (3)
R16: Pluskota/Szekely (UT) def. Emily Fraser/Lindsey Hardenbergh (Virginia) 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2)
FR: Pluskota/Szekely (UT) def.  Shinann Featherston/Lauren McHale (UNC)7-6 (2), 6-3