No. 8 Arizona bested top-seed UCLA in the quarterfinals
(Arizona Athletics Photo)
STILLWATER, OK (May 22, 2018) - USC and Duke players battling it out in the national championship is a familiar scene. Back when this tournament ended after 72 holes of stroke play, they were recurring title contenders.
When match play came into the picture, it shook that up by bringing the two powerhouses together earlier in the championship. On Tuesday, USC and Duke met in the quarterfinals for the second time in three years. This time, USC came out on top, 3-1-1.
Without question, USC had the less experienced team this time, but head coach Andrea Gaston is impressed with the fearlessness her players are showing. Not one Trojan has played in a national championship before, but you’d never guess it watching this team.
“They don’t have any give up in them,” said Gaston.
Gaston, here with four freshmen and a sophomore, quickly threw out freshman Jennifer Chang’s name to go off first when setting her quarterfinal pairings. She wanted to have some control of the opening match, knowing that Duke had two-time Annika Award winner Leona Maguire in its pocket.
“She’s such a good player – plays fast, she’s decisive,” Gaston said to Chang’s credit. Chang took Maguire, a senior, to the 18th hole, but Maguire ultimately won the match.
It was the back of the Trojan lineup that got it done on Tuesday as USC got meaningful points from Gabriela Ruffels, Alyaa Abdulghany and Amelia Garvey.
Alabama’s story was completely opposite. Head coach Mic Pottter front-loaded his lineup for the match-up against Kent State and got immediate points from junior match-play stalwarts Lauren Stephenson and Kristen Gillman. Both will play on the U.S. Curtis Cup squad next month.
“I really like going out first, I’m a fast player,” Stephenson said.
Potter wanted to reserve Stephenson, his best player, for the strongest member of the Kent State lineup. That player, Pimnipa Panthong, came out first, so Stephenson became the lead player in Alabama’s first shot at NCAA match play.
“I pretty much got everybody where I wanted them,” Potter said. It helped the Crimson Tide to a 4-1 victory.
Alabama’s men have won two national championships in this format (2013, 2014), and Potter watched the pairing procedures closely. At first he tried to create a go-to lineup to follow regardless of who the other team put on the board. That got Alabama’s women to the SEC final last month, where the Crimson Tide lost to Arkansas. Then Potter changed strategy.
“I don’t think it suits us right now,” Potter said. “I think we need to match up and try to get our players as close to where we need them to be as effective as we can, regardless of what order they go in. Gives us the best chance to win every match.”
There’s no question that the postseason is an endurance event. SEC match play tacked on two extra days to the conference championship, but also gave Potter an opportunity to tinker.
A day ago, junior Cheyenne Knight was battling it out for individual-medalist honors. Knight, who has already announced she will turn pro at the end of the season, fell three shots short despite a draining effort. In the quarterfinals, she redeemed herself with a 4-and-3 victory over Kory Nielsen. It was a show of resiliency and strength.
“She held on a little tight yesterday so I thought match play would really free her up,” Potter said. “I thought she would play well.”
Stamina also came into play for Arizona as it gutted out a 3-2 victory over top-seeded UCLA. In the four years since match play was added, a top seed still hasn’t won.
With the match tied, Junior Bianca Pagdanganan came down the 18th hole tied with Patty Tavatanakit. She left herself 170 yards to the green on the par 5, hit 8-iron to 30 feet and made a seemingly easy birdie to send Arizona to the next round. Less than 24 hours earlier, she holed an eagle putt on this green to force a playoff and get her team to match play.
At the front of the lineup, junior Gigi Stoll scored a big win over Player of the Year Lilia Vu. The two had run up against each other in a regular-season match-play event hosted by San Diego State, but that ended in a tie.
“She’s pretty sharp on her irons,” Stoll said. “I knew it was definitely going to be a good match and I’d have to put a score together to get the win.”
Stoll, who won, 2 up, said she felt like she played as well as she had all week.
Arizona will go up against Stanford in the semifinals after the Cardinal beat Northwestern 3-2.