OXFORD, Miss. - The NCAA second round match between No. 16 seeded Ole Miss and Rice saw a few momentum changes, but it was the Owls who ultimately won some third sets to defeat the Rebels 4-2 here Saturday night at the Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center/Galtney Courts.
The loss ends the Rebels' season at 18-9, while Rice advances to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history.
The match was delayed an hour due to rain. Rice, who upset No. 18 Illinois on Friday, in the first round, gained the early advantage by taking the doubles point. They won 8-5 at No. 2, but then the senior duo of Kristi Boxx and Abby Guthrie, ranked No. 7 nationally, won 8-5 at No. 1. Ole Miss served for the point with the freshmen tandem of Julia Jones and Iris Verboven leading 7-6. At 30-30, Rice hit a shot right over Verboven's head and then on the next point, the ball sailed just wide by Jones. At 7-8, Verboven served to force a tiebreaker, but was broken as Rice claimed the early momentum.
The Owls maintained the momentum at the start of singles, winning four first sets. In one of the matches where the Rebels won a first set, sophomore Vivian Vlaar defeated Owl Stephanie Nguyen 6-3, 6-3 at No. 6 to even the overall score 1-1.
Rice went ahead again 2-1 when 36th-ranked Natalie Beazant took out ninth-ranked Boxx 6-1, 6-3 at No. 1 singles.
Jones won a huge first set tiebreaker 7-6(6) against Rice's Ana Guzman at No. 4 singles and then took the second set 6-4 to square the match again.
The Rebels seemed to be gaining traction in the match and shifting the momentum, when the three remaining matches on courts two, three and five all split sets. After dropping the first set to Dominique Harmath at No. 2, Caroline Rohde-Moe won the second set 6-2. The third set was all Harmath, 6-0, as she put Rice ahead 3-2.
Down on court three, freshman Erin Stephens lost a close first set to Rice junior Katie Gater 7-5 and then won the second set 6-0. Just as her teammate did on court two, Gater raced out to a big lead in the final set and won it 6-1 to clinch her team's first Sweet Sixteen berth.
"It's extremely disappointing to lose this match," head coach Mark Beyers said. "I don't remember a more disappointing match [and I've been coaching 20 years]. I have to give a lot of credit to Rice. They played a great match. We had a lot of opportunities. We served for the doubles point and didn't get that. Then Rice jumped on us in singles. We did a great job of fighting back and turning the momentum.
"I'm not really sure what happened in the third sets. Part of it is Rice doing a good job, and part of it is us losing belief pretty quickly. That's the disappointing part. We worked so hard to get the momentum back and then we give it away that quickly. It's a tough way to end a good season."
The season is not quite over for Boxx and Guthrie as they as they will compete in the NCAA Individual Championships. Boxx is seeded 9-16 in singles and 5-8 in doubles with Guthrie. Those will begin May 23 following the completion of the team championships in Athens, Ga.
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