No. 11 Stanford Cardinal (20-2, 8-2 Pac-12)
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No. 7 North Carolina Tar Heels (28-5, 12-2 ACC)
NCAA Championships – Semifinals
Monday, May 19 – 10 a.m. PT
Dan Magill Tennis Complex
Weather Forecast: 75 degrees, partly cloudy with increasing humidity
ATHENS, Ga.- No. 11 Stanford (20-2, 8-2 Pac-12), into the semifinals of the NCAA Championships for the fourth time in five years, will next face No. 7 North Carolina (28-5, 12-2 ACC) on Monday afternoon.
Looking to repeat as national champions for the first time since an undefeated three-year stretch from 2004-06, Stanford is coming off the latest in a growing list of NCAA Tournament “upsets”. Over the last five seasons, Stanford has incredibly now won nine straight NCAA Tournament matches when seeded lower than its opponent.
This time around, the victim was upstart Virginia, seeded No. 3 in the postseason draw, ranked No. 4 in the national poll and enjoying its best season in school history. Instead, Carol Zhao provided the clinching point in Saturday’s 4-2 victory, prevailing in back-to-back tiebreakers for her 24th straight-set win of the season.
Stanford, which defeated Texas A&M to capture last year’s NCAA championship, has won 17 of the 32 possible NCAA team titles and captured 18 national championships overall when including the 1978 AIAW crown. The Cardinal owns a 133-16 record in the postseason since the NCAA Tournament went to its present format in 1982.
It might be surprising to note that Stanford has become familiar with starting the postseason in an underdog role. Believe it or not, the Cardinal has entered NCAA’s seeded higher than fifth only once (No. 1 in 2011) over the last six years. Stanford won the 2010 NCAA championship as the No. 8 seed and last year became the lowest-seeded team at No. 12 to win an NCAA title.
With that said, here are five storylines heading into Monday’s match.
| Semifinal Field Has Opened Up
Seeding has meant very little in this year’s tournament with one semifinal to include No. 11 Stanford vs. No. 7 North Carolina while the other pits No. 5 UCLA and No. 8 Florida. By virtue of being the “highest” seed remaining in the draw, the Bruins will play their match against the Gators inside the stadium. Don’t let the crooked numbers fool you here though, as at least one member of that quartet has played in the national championship match in 27 of the previous 28 years. So, it’s basically college tennis royalty, just with a non-traditional seeding assigned next to the name. Let’s face it: at this point, nobody truly believes that the defending NCAA champion Cardinal is your standard No. 11 seed. Not to mention, there’s the psychological aspect opponents must deal with knowing they’re assuming the role of favorite against the most storied program in college tennis.
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| A Closer Look At No. 7 North Carolina
Of the remaining NCAA semifinal participants, North Carolina is the only program without a national championship appearance under its belt. That doesn’t mean the Tar Heels are going to roll over. The winningest program in the country with 28 victories, North Carolina has reached the semifinals for the first time since 2010. There’s a lot to like about this group, which finished in a four-way tie for first place in the ACC but wound up as the No. 1 seed after owning tiebreakers against Clemson, Miami and Virginia. North Carolina boasts a pair of doubles teams ranked among the top-15 and two of the country’s top-5 players in No. 1 Jamie Loeb and No. 5 Hayley Carter. The Tar Heels, who played a rugged schedule and tested themselves in non-conference play, knocked off No. 2 seed Alabama 4-2 on Saturday in the quarterfinals.
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| Can Only Live Stream One Court?
If that’s the case, make it court one. Crowds will swarm just to get a glimpse of the singles contest between senior Kristie Ahn, ranked No. 3 nationally, and freshman Jamie Loeb, ranked No. 1 in the country. Stanford’s vocal leader and emotional anchor, Ahn has capably filled the void left by the early departure of back-to-back defending NCAA champion Nicole Gibbs. Nobody still playing in Athens has competed on a bigger stage than Ahn, who clinched Stanford’s national championship victory over Texas A&M last year. In 30 matches this year, Ahn has lost only three times, but one of those setbacks came against Loeb. All the North Carolina rookie has done this year is compile an eye-popping 49-2 record while capturing titles at the ITA All-American Championships and USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships. Loeb defeated Ahn 6-2, 6-1 back on Oct. 4 in the quarterfinals of the ITA All-American Championships. It’s safe to assume Ahn will be fired up for this one.
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| Doubles Should Be Fun To Watch
North Carolina’s top two doubles teams are some of the nation’s best with Loeb and fellow rookie Hayley Carter ranked No. 3 and the pairing of Whitney Kay and Caroline Price ranked No. 13. Stanford can certainly matchup at the top spot, with Ahn and Carol Zhao owning at No. 10 ranking. Meanwhile, the Cardinal’s next duo of Taylor Davidson and Ellen Tsay might be ranked lower at No. 50, but they’re playing much better than that distinction. An encouraging sign came in Saturday’s match, when Davidson and Tsay handled Virginia’s seventh-ranked team of Julia Elbaba and Rachel Pierson 8-5. It was a positive outcome considering Davidson and Tsay had suffered an 8-3 loss just two days before, representing their worst defeat of the year. The Tar Heels have dropped the doubles point only four times this year, quite an achievement considering they have already played 33 dual matches.
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| Zhao Secures Victory Over Virginia
Just how dominant has Carol Zhao been at the No. 3 spot this year? Of Zhao’s 28 victories, all but three have been decided in straight sets. At times, it seems Zhao is rarely even pushed to the limit, with only four of her sets this season decided by a tiebreaker. Turns out she can win those, too. Two days after watching fellow rookie Caroline Doyle deliver a pressure-packed win, Zhao provided the clinching point with a tough-as-nails 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4) victory over Stephanie Nauta in Stanford’s 4-2 triumph. In the first set, Zhao led 4-2 before Nauta won the next three games. Zhao eventually forced a tiebreaker, winning seven of the eight points. In the second set, Zhao rallied from a 6-5 deficit to force a second tiebreaker, jumping out to an early lead and holding on for the win.