Top-seeded Georgia got all it could handle Thursday from No. 16 Southern Cal.
Leave it to Lauren Herring, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, to bail out the Bulldogs when their season and national championship hopes were on the line in a 4-3 NCAA women’s tennis round of 16 victory.
Herring, a junior, battled back to pull out a 5-7, 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory over Zoe Scandalis before 1,310 at the Dan Magill Tennis Compex.
When her forehand winner ended the match on court one after five hours, she threw her racket behind her in celebration and teammates who had watched from court two surrounded her with hugs.
“I was just too excited,” senior Maho Kowase said. “I could feel how much pressure was on her. I was like, ‘Yeah, Lauren did it.”
Herring hasn’t lost since Feb. 9 and dropped her first set on Thursday since then, but with both teams cheering and the home crowd backing her she pulled out the match.
“I had no legs at the end,” Herring said.
The Greenville, N.C., native did it on her fifth match point after fighting through cramping.
“My thought as a coach after being with Lauren for three years that if it’s going to come down to any court, let’s have it come down to her court,” coach Jeff Wallace said. “She’s a fighter, she’s a competitor. You’re going to have to earn it against her. She’s going to find a way. I was confident all the way through even after we were debacling on match points. She still found a way.”
Match points that got away included a double fault, a volley into the net and two more that also found the net.
“It’s insane,” Scandalis said. “It got so loud and you have to put so much focus on what you’re doing. … I believed I could win until the very last ball that went by me.”
Georgia was in danger of becoming the first No. 1 seed not to reach the quarterfinals since Florida lost in the second round to Miami 4-3 in 2004 but was pushed to the limit.
“I don’t think you ever expect it like that when you go into a match,” Herring said.
The Bulldogs (24-4) play Florida (22-5) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
The Bulldogs’ season has ended the past three years in the quarterfinals.
Rain forced the first of four round of 16 matches indoors on Thursday, with two having to trek to Atlanta.
Playing inside at Georgia Tech, No. 7 North Carolina eliminated No. 10 Texas A&M 4-0 and defending national champion and No. 11 Stanford edged No. 6 California 4-3.
Back in Athens at the Lindsey Hopkins Indoor Facility, No. 2 Alabama pushed past Notre Dame 4-2 to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in program history and No. 3 Virginia knocked off No. 14 Baylor 4-1.
The skies cleared in time for the late afternoon match for Georgia and the skies got brighter and temperatures pushed into the upper 60s.
The men’s round of 16 will be played today.
Georgia faces North Carolina at 4 p.m.
The Georgia women’s team is seeking the program’s third national title and first since 2000.
The Bulldogs were down early in all three doubles courts, but Herring and Kowase won 8-5 on court one against Kaitlyn Christian and Giuliana Olmos and then Lilly Kimbell and Caroline Brinson notched an 8-6 decision over Gabriella DeSimone and Zoe Katz on court three.
Southern Cal (18-4) was playing without Sabrina Santamaria. The nation’s No. 1 ranked singles player at the start of the season sustained a torn ACL in March.
Georgia went up 2-0 with a 6-1, 6-1 win on court four from Kimbell against DeSimone, but the Bulldogs dropped the first sets on courts two, five, six and one.
Silvio Garcia fell 3-6, 6-0 to Tennessee transfer Brynn Boren.
Kowase cruised past Olmos 6-3, 6-0 on court three.
That left Herring or Kate Fuller to get the clinching point down a set.
Fuller lost the last six games of a 5-7, 5-7 loss to Kaitlyn Christian, but Herring got through the cramping (despite drinking plenty of coconut water and sports drink) and the match points that got away.
“You have to give an enormous amount of credit to Georgia,” USC coach Richard Gallien said. “As the 16th seed, much undeserved, but the 16th seed, our girls were remarkable today.”
Said Wallace: “Just an epic battle. … I thought both teams played some high level tennis today.”
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