Bulldogs withstand Arizona State’s fight to land a spot in NCAAs round of 16

As the Georgia women’s tennis team gathered on court six to stretch after defeating Arizona State 4-0, Lauren Herring embraced teammate Silvia Garcia.

“You’re so, so clutch,” the Bulldogs’ No. 1 singles player told Garcia.

The freshman, ranked 104th in singles, fought for a 6-2, 7-6 (7-1) victory on court three against Arizona State’s Leighann Sahagun. The win gave the third-seeded Bulldogs a 3-0 lead in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Garcia was up 6-5 in the second set, aiming to hold her serve to finally close out her match.

Not so fast.

Sahagun broke Garcia to force a tiebreaker.

“I lost that game and I was kind of mad, so I said, ‘OK, this tiebreaker, I have to get it and I have to do good,’ “ Garcia said. “I was so focused.”

Garcia rattled off six consecutive winners before eventually taking the tiebreaker 7-1.

“She didn’t get frustrated one bit,” Georgia coach Jeff Wallace said. “She just bared down in that tiebreaker and really played six of the best points she’s played all year.”

Not long after Garcia added to the Bulldogs’ lead, Ayaka Okuno clinched the victory for Georgia on court five. It was the freshman’s second match clinch in as many days.

Arizona State’s Hannah James took the first set 6-4 before Okuno returned the favor with a 6-2 win in the second.

A spot in the round of 16 in Urbana, Ill., was up for grabs, and Okuno wanted to seize it sooner rather than later or not at all.

“It’s just really your mindset and how you put it. In that moment, I knew exactly what I needed to do, it was just a matter of if I was going to do it or not,” Okuno said. “So I did it.”

And as Okuno’s match was winding down, Herring began to notice from her spot on court one.

The crowd was a little bit louder, and everyone had their heads turned toward the pit — courts four, five and six in Dan Magill Tennis Complex.

The sophomore, who is ranked sixth in singles, had her head cranked around to look at the scoreboard when she could.

“Our match was kind of dead rubber, if you want to call it that,” said Herring, whose match against Jacqueline Cako went unfinished at 4-6, 6-2, 3-1. “I think both of us were watching. It was awesome that [Okuno] had those two match points. I even knew the score and everything. Good for her. I’m glad she was the one to clinch for us.”

Georgia won the doubles point thanks to an 8-4 clinch by Herring and Maho Kowase, who are ranked 52nd. Garcia and Kate Fuller, the top-ranked doubles team in the country, won the Bulldogs’ first doubles match 8-3 over Arizona State’s Cako and Nicole Smith.

“It’s always nice, especially at the end of the year in the NCAA tournament to be up 1-0 versus down 1-0,” Wallace said of the doubles point. “I think we’ve got great singles players, and I think we can win even if we drop the doubles point. But at the same time, you certainly want it. It makes life a lot easier.”

Despite going into singles action with some momentum from doubles, Georgia dropped the first set on courts one, four and five. And the Sun Devils’ Desirae Krawczyk forced a third set with Kowase on court three.

Fuller was the lone Bulldogs to win in straight sets with no tiebreaker, finishing off Stephanie Vlad on court four 6-1, 6-3.

Though the match lasted more than three hours, Herring said being “battle-tested” heading into the round of 16 is crucial for the Bulldogs (23-3).

“I just thought our players kept raising their level as Arizona State raised their level and then we’d find another way to raise our level,” Wallace said.

The Bulldogs will have to do it again Friday when they play 13th-seeded Clemson, who notched a 4-0 over Vanderbilt in the second round.

Georgia grabbed a 5-2 victory over the Tigers (16-7) on Feb. 2 during the indoor season, and Georgia owns a 25-19 all-time record against them.

But the NCAA tournament and the indoor season are two separate animals.

“Difference environment, different setting, different day,” Wallace said. “It’s the NCAA tournament, so there’s a lot more riding on this one than the last one. I think they’ve got a great team, and we’ll be well-prepared … and we’ve got to be ready.”

The Bulldogs will head to Illinois Tuesday night before beginning practices at the University of Illinois’ facilities.

And they have a slow climb the rest of the tournament.

“Everybody is out here to fight — it’s the NCAAs,” Okuno said. “I think it’s just great going into the next round knowing that we get over each step. It’s like climbing the stairs — one at a time.”

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@MitchAClarke @SethEmerson Told by SEC that it should be finalized and announced sometime before the end of this season.

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