ATHENS, Ga.- Arguably the nation's best conference in women's tennis, Pac-12 powerhouses such as Stanford, USC, UCLA and California all experienced their share of moments as the league's top team this year.
Unfortunately, for nearly five hours on Saturday at No. 5 Stanford's expense, it was No. 4 USC's turn again.
Tied at 2-2, USC grinded out a pair of hard-fought three-setters at the Nos. 2 and 3 spots to claim a 4-2 victory over Stanford in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Championships at Dan Magill Tennis Complex.
It's a rare early postseason exit for Stanford (21-2, 9-1 Pac-12), which had advanced to the NCAA title match for two straight seasons. Prior to last year's runner-up finish to Florida, the Cardinal defeated the Gators to claim the 2010 national championship.
Instead, someone else will be representing the conference in this year's NCAA final, with USC earning a semifinal date against UCLA, which defeated California earlier today. With the loaded left side of the bracket featuring four Pac-12 programs, something had to give. Unfortunately, and perhaps maybe even a little unfairly, Stanford came out on the short end on Saturday.
Not that you'll find Stanford making excuses. The nation's only one-loss team entering the match and co-Pac-12 champion, the Cardinal approached Saturday's match knowing very well that the level of competition would be much higher than earlier rounds.
Much of that credit goes to USC (24-3, 9-1 Pac-12). Stanford won the regular-season meeting, picking up a 4-2 home win on April 13. The Cardinal won four of six singles sets on that day, but the doubles competition was not played due to the threat of rain.
On Saturday, the doubles competition proved to be a pivotal point in the match as USC secured a 1-0 lead. Stanford had lost the doubles point only one other time this year, in a 5-2 setback against UCLA.
The Cardinal's No. 2 team of Stacey Tan and Ellen Tsay opened the scoring with an 8-5 win at the No. 2 spot.
The Women of Troy responded with an 8-6 victory on court one. A rematch of this year's Pac-12 Championships doubles final, USC's team of Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria hung on for an 8-6 victory over Mallory Burdette and Nicole Gibbs. Despite trailing 7-2, Burdette and Gibbs crept to within 7-6 before the USC tandem finally pulled out the match.
Tied at 6-6 over on court three, USC's team of Danielle Lao and Alison Ramos held serve to make it 7-6 and eventually broke Stanford in the following game to clinch the doubles point.
Despite trailing 1-0, Stanford was not ready to go away. The Cardinal won five of six first sets in singles play, quickly recovering the momentum.
Gibbs evened the match at 1-1 when she cruised past Zoe Scandalis 6-1, 6-4 at the No. 1 position. Gibbs improved to 35-5 overall, 21-2 in duals and has now won 11 matches in a row.
Gabriella DeSimone's 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Tsay at the No. 5 spot swung the momentum back to USC at 2-1.
However, Li put Stanford back in front 2-1 following a gritty 6-4, 7-5 win over Valeria Pulido on court six. Trailing 4-2, Li won three of the last four games to secure the win.
With three matches remaining, Stanford would need to win on two courts in order to complete its comeback. Two of those three contests had split sets, and USC seized momentum back in the third sets.
Sabrina Santamaria's 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (5) win over Tan at the No. 3 position proved to be the clincher, following mere seconds after Danielle Lao rallied for a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over Burdette on court two.
Another positive for Stanford on Saturday was the return of Kristie Ahn, who had been sidelined for essentially the entire season due to injury. Appearing at No. 3 doubles and playing in only her fourth singles match of the year and first since March 2, the sophomore All-American and 2011 ITA National Rookie of the Year made an immediate impact with her presence on the court. Ahn won her first set 6-4 before falling 7-5 in her second set. Moving well throughout the match, Ahn was trailing 2-1 in the third frame when her match was suspended.
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NOTES: Consider this: Stanford's loss was only its fourth over the last three years ... The most storied program in women's college tennis, the Cardinal is now 123-16 all-time in the NCAA Tournament ... With 21 victories this year, Stanford has now compiled 877 all-time as a program and could pass the 900-win plateau next year ... Ahn had appeared in three other dual matches, chalking up a 2-1 mark ... Mallory Burdette's loss was her first dual match defeat of the year. Burdette was 19-0 in duals entering Saturday ... USC earned its first NCAA Tournament victory over Stanford since 1983 ... In her final match, senior Veronica Li picked up her 80th career singles victory.
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No. 4 USC 4, No. 5 Stanford 2
1) No. 3 Christian/Santamaria (USC) d. No. 2 Burdette/Gibbs (STAN) 8-6
2) No. 24 Tan/Tsay (STAN) d. No. 49 Pulido/Scandalis (USC) 8-5
3) No. 75 Lao/Ramos (USC) d. Ahn/Li (STAN) 8-6
Order of Finish: 2, 1, 3
1) No. 3 Nicole Gibbs (STAN) d. No. 14 Zoe Scandalis (USC) 6-1, 6-4
2) No. 19 Danielle Lao (USC) d. No. 5 Mallory Burdette (STAN) 4-6, 6-2, 6-4
3) No. 26 Sabrina Santamaria (USC) d. No. 25 Stacey Tan (STAN) 7-5, 1-6, 7-6 (5)
4) Kristie Ahn (STAN) vs. No. 89 Kaitlyn Christian (USC) abandoned
5) Gabriella DeSimone (USC) d. No. 74 Ellen Tsay (STAN) 1-6, 6-2, 6-2
6) Veronica Li (STAN) d. Valeria Pulido (USC) 6-4, 7-5
Order of Finish: 1, 5, 6, 2, 3