Top-seeded Florida knocked off fourth-seeded and 16th-ranked Ole Miss, 4-0, on the Rebels home court Saturday afternoon and advanced to the championship match of the Southeastern Conference Tournament held at Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center.
Third-ranked Florida will play seventh-ranked Georgia (21-3) for the championship on Sunday beginning at 1 p.m. ET/Noon CT. The third-seeded Lady Bulldogs defeated second-seeded and 11th-ranked Alabama, 4-2, in their semifinal match to reach the final.
“It will be exciting,” UF head coach Roland Thornqvist said of playing in the SEC Tournament final. “Friday and today’s matches were all business and then tomorrow will be exciting, playing archrival Georgia in the finals of the SEC Tournament. That’s what you’re looking for when you come to Florida.”
It will be the 16th time the Gators (20-1) and Lady Bulldogs square off in the SEC Tournament, with 14 of those meetings coming in the final. Florida holds a 9-6 edge against Georgia in the league’s postseason event, including a 9-4 record when meeting in the title match.
Sunday will be the first SEC Tournament matchup between Florida and Georgia since 2009, when the Bulldogs eliminated the Gators 4-2 in the semifinals, marking the third straight year Georgia defeated Florida in the event.
The Gators earned the tight 4-3 win against the Bulldogs on March 4 in Athens during the regular season.
“Georgia has done a phenomenal job this season so it’s going to be a battle, it is every time we play them,” Thornqvist said. “We barely beat them at their place in March so this is going to be a tester for sure, but that’s what we need at this point of the season to get ready for the NCAA Championships.”
On Saturday, Florida won its 15th consecutive match, as well as its 43rd straight against SEC teams en route to advancing the SEC Tournament final for the 23rd time in the 25-year history of the event.
“We talk during the preseason that we have to be fit enough to play on consecutive days because that’s what you need to be able to do to win championships,” Thornqvist said.
The Gators began the semifinal by winning a hard-fought doubles point, as the teams split results on courts two and three, before Florida’s top-ranked Sofie Oyen (Leopoldsburg, Belgium) and Allie Will (Boca Raton, Fla.) earned a 9-8 (7-5) win against fourth-ranked Kristi Boxx and Abby Gutherie.
The Gator pair found itself receiving, down 5-3, but rallied to force a tiebreak after fending off a match point when down 7-6. In the tiebreak Oyen and Will held a 5-2 lead before the Ole Miss duo won three straight points to even the breaker and head to the baseline for the next two serves. Florida, however, earned both mini-breaks to clinch the match and give the Gators the important team point.
“We were struggling to find form the entire set,” Thornqvist said of the doubles match on court one. “At the end we did a really good job. We managed to poach at the right time. We had not done a good enough job of that until the end. I thought Ole Miss was the more aggressive team up until the last five minutes of the match. Somehow we were right there with them until the end and we made some really good decisions a showed courage to poach at the key times to win it.”
Florida’s Lauren Embree (Marco Island, Fla.) and Joanna Mather (Duluth, Ga.) gave the other two doubles teams some breathing room after they posted a relatively quick 8-1 win on court two against Gabby Rangel and Erin Stephens. The decision was the tandem’s 19th consecutive victory, a run that ranks as the sixth longest in program history, as Embree and Mather improved to 19-0 in dual match action this year, as well as 44-1 all-time in team competition.
Ole Miss (17-8) won the first two games on court three and Florida played catch-up the entire match, getting it back on serve a couple times, last at 6-5, before the Rebels held for 6-all and broke on their first opportunity for a 7-6 lead. The Gators held two break points in the next game, but couldn’t take advantage and dropped the 8-6 decision and setting the stage for court one.
Mather came out just as focused on the singles court, where she earned a 6-3, 6-1, victory against Erin Stephens on court three and gave Florida a 2-0 lead, while collecting her 99th career singles win. The Gator’s lone senior actually lost her serve to being the match before rattling off the next four games. Stephens held and broke Mather, but the Gator broke right back and served out for the win and first set. She jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second and never looked back en route to the win.
Embree also put on an impressive showing during her singles match, where she posted a 6-2, 6-0 victory against ninth-ranked Kristi Boxx on court one. Embree, ranked tenth in the country, lost the first two games, but roared back and captured the next 12 to earn her 13th consecutive singles victory and give Florida a 3-0 lead.
Will and Caroline Hitimana (Waterloo, Belgium) won their respective first sets, but it was Oyen who provided the clinching dual match victory when she brushed off a slow start against Julia Jones for the 3-6, 6-1, 6-0 win and help send Florida to the championship match.