By Chuck Pool
Katherine Ip rebounded from a 6-0 loss in her opening set to outlast Tulsa’s Marcelina Cichon 0-6, 7-6, 6-3 and clinch Rice’s second consecutive Conference USA (C-USA) crown with a 4-2 win Sunday over the top-seeded Golden Hurricane at the Folkes-Stevens Tennis Center in Norfolk, Va.
“I’m just really proud of our team and their effort today,” Rice head coach Elizabeth Schmidt said. “Coming back after losing some first sets and battling, they’ve worked really hard to get here and to finish it off with a victory is just really sweet.”
Rice joined Tulane (2003-05) as the only teams other than Tulsa to repeat as C-USA women’s tennis champions. It also marked the first repeat conference title in tennis for Rice since the men’s team won five consecutive Southwest Conference crowns from 1968 to 1971.
The Owls started fast by taking the doubles point with wins from their first two teams, easing any fears Schmidt might have had that they would be rusty after more than a week off.
“We had not played doubles since the Baylor match (April 9), because we’d played singles first the last several matches,” Schmidt said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we came out with great energy and played very well. As it turned out, that was a huge point for us.”
Needing wins in three of the six singles matches to retain their title, the Owls picked up two of those points in rapid fashion at opposite ends of the lineup as Natalie Beazant and Alison Ho won in straight sets on courts one and six. Beazant ran her career record in C-USA Championship play to 7-0 with a 6-3, 6-2 win over Yelena Nemchen, and Ho won her 10th consecutive match, 6-2, 6-1, over Carol Benito to bring Rice to within a point of the crown.
However, the final point would prove to be far more difficult to secure.
Tulsa won the opening sets in each of the four remaining singles matches, including an epic first-set tiebreaker between Dominique Harmath and Tulsa’s Rongrong Leenabancho that required 26 points before Leenabancho emerged 14-12.
As the Golden Hurricane continued their momentum with wins on courts four and five to close the gap to 3-2, Ip had recovered from her first set to battle Cichon to a draw in the second set to force a tiebreaker, which Ip won.
In the third set, the pair were tied 2-2 before the freshman from Hong Kong finally broke through in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead and then held her serve twice to give the Owls their second consecutive championship win over Tulsa.
With the conference title, the Owls have earned an automatic bid to the 2014 NCAA Women’s Tennis Championship. This will be Rice’s third consecutive appearance in the NCAA team competition, which ties the most consecutive appearances by the Owls. They reached the first round of the tournament from 1996 to 1998.
The NCAA will reveal the bracket for the 2014 women’s tennis championship as well as the regional host sites April 29. First-round action will take place May 9-10 at 16 regional sites before converging on Athens, Ga., May 15.