By Jeff Owens/Photo by SC Athletics
Kevin Epley had one main goal for the South Carolina women's tennis team this season.
To get to the NCAA Sweet 16 in Athens, Ga.
How would the Gamecock squad accomplish that?
"We have been trying to outwork anyone we play. That's kind of been the standard," junior Hadley Berg said.
That effort paid off Saturday as the No. 14 Gamecocks beat No. 22 Texas 4-3 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to reach the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in school history and the first since Epley took over the program five years ago.
"It's been our goal all year," said Epley, whose team was upset in the second round last year. "We met very early in the fall and this was the number one goal, to get to the Sweet 16 and play in Athens, Georgia. Just really proud of the girls for achieving that goal and working hard all year."
"That was our team goal our whole year, to get to Athens and see what we can do there," Berg said. "Especially after last year, this one feels good."
South Carolina, which beat North Florida 4-0 on Friday to advance, won a tight match against Texas by taking No. 2 and No. 3 doubles and lines 2, 5 and 6 in singles. Mia Horvit clinched the match with a 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 win at No. 2 singles with the team score tied at 3-3.
South Carolina improved to 20-8, the first 20-win season since 1995, and will advance to the Sweet 16 in Athens next Friday.
The key point in the match against Texas came early, as South Carolina rallied to win a tiebreaker at No. 3 doubles to secure the doubles point and take a 1-0 lead in the match.
Berg and Paige Cline, the No. 25 ranked doubles team in the country, lost 6-1 at No. 1, but Brigit Folland and Ingrid Gamarra Martins won at No. 2 doubles, 6-3.
Caroline Dailey and Rachel Rohrabacher were down 5-3 at No. 3, but fought back to get a service break and stay in the match at 4-5. With strong net play by Dailey, Rohrabacher held serve to tie it at 5-5, but Texas held to go up 6-5. Dailey held serve to tie it again 6-6, and South Carolina won the tiebreaker 7-4 to take the match and give South Carolina a 1-0 lead.
"We were down there but they stayed steady," Epley said. "That point would have been the difference had we lost that. They were down 5-3 and they just stayed locked in and played our game and stayed committed and got the win in the end. That was huge."
Folland, a senior, won at No. 6 singles, 6-0, 6-2, to improved to 19-2 in Dual matches and give the Gamecocks a 2-0 lead in the match. Texas picked up its first point when Bianca Turati, who is ranked No. 41 in the country, defeated Martins, 6-1, 6-2, at No. 1 singles.
But Berg pushed the lead to 3-1 when she won 6-3, 7-5 at No. 5 singles. After winning the first set, Berg trailed 2-4 in the second before rallying and finishing off her opponent.
"I lost two deuce games to get down 4-2, so I tried to keep that in my head. I wasn't really down that far," said Berg, who improved to 21-2 in Dual matches. "I just kept fighting. I just had to hunker down and get back to playing my game more."
Texas closed to 3-2 when Petra Granic defeated Dailey at No. 3 singles, 6-0, 2-6, 6-2. The Longhorns briefly tied the match at 3-3 when Anna Turati won a tight match with South Carolina senior Silvia Chineletto, 7-5, 6-3, at No. 4 singles.
But Horvit was in the process of closing out another victory on Court 2 to clinch the match for the second straight day.
Horvit, who is ranked No. 47 nationally and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team, won the first set 6-1, but dropped the second set to No. 72 Neda Koprcina, 6-3.
Horvit, who is 13-10 in Dual matches and 24-11 overall, looked to be in trouble after dropping the second set.
"I got a little wide-eyed and was kinda paying attention around the courts and looking at the scores and not really focusing on myself and my game," she said. "The third set, Coach Epley came onto the court and told me to stick with my game plan and if I just pushed that extra five percent, I would follow through and get the win."
She did, taking the third set easily for a 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 win that clinched the win and set off a wild celebration among her teammates.
"Mia has been a stud all year," Epley said. "When she is playing her game and being aggressive and assertive and stepping into the court and hurting people, she wins. When she backs off and gets distracted — and that's what happened in the second set, she got distracted — she loses.
"But as a freshman, for her to have the year that she has had and to take the team and it come down to her clinching match and the deciding match to go to Athens, that speaks volumes to her mental capacity."
Despite dropping three of six singles matches, the team was confident with Horvit on the court for the deciding match.
"She's a stud. We knew it was coming," Berg said. "We have so much trust in pretty much everyone at every spot, but especially watching her at the end, it was incredible because our whole team knew she had it."
Now the Gamecocks, which have appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 23 straight years, will realize their dream of playing in the Sweet 16 in Athens, where they will likely face No. 3 seed Ohio State on Friday. They like their chances of advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008.
"We feel great," Epley said. "We've just got to focus on us. I still think we can player better in a few positions. We can certainly play better doubles. We're just going to focus on us getting better and try to get the best team that we can out there on Friday."
"You can beat anyone on any given day, no matter who you play against," Horvit said. "So I think we have a pretty good opportunity."