UNC women's tennis topples Tennessee

The Tar Heels advance to the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament

In a match that saw everything from intense doubles matches to a rain delay, the No. 2 North Carolina women’s tennis team (27-3) confidently marched into the round of 16 after defeating No. 31 Tennessee 4-1 Saturday.

As the players predicted, the doubles point proved to be tough against the Lady Volunteers (13-12).

After splitting victories on courts one and three, the doubles point came down to UNC’s pair of junior Laura Slater and senior Lauren McHale. UNC eventually lost the match in a tiebreak 9-8 (7-4), and Tennessee took a 1-0 lead in the match.

“We had opportunities to finish them off, and we didn’t,” coach Brian Kalbas said. “We played a little scared, but I’m really happy we came back in singles. We are so competitive, and we don’t let one point or situation get us down.”

Senior Gina Suarez-Malaguti said she expected the dogfight that came from doubles.

“I’ve seen them in the past three years,” Suarez-Malaguti said. “They’ve always been very good and feisty in doubles, so I expected nothing less.”

With reality setting in that this could be their last match, the Tar Heels turned up the intensity a notch and came out hitting with purpose on every court.

A rain delay interrupted singles play briefly, but it worked slightly in UNC’s favor to gain some momentum in some close matches.

“We were in the locker room, and the seniors rotated on who (spoke),” Suarez-Malaguti said. “Zoe gave a pretty good speech and was going at it.”

After the delay, sophomore Caroline Price didn’t drop a game the rest of her match and came off the courts first.

Price was followed by wins from Suarez-Malaguti, McHale and junior Tessa Lyons, though senior Zoe De Bruycker was up 5-0 in the second set and on the verge of winning her match. Freshman Whitney Kay also had a commanding lead when the match was decided.

“After the doubles point, we were like, ‘we don’t want these girls to think they can beat us at our home courts,’” De Bruycker said. “It was just the energy and attitude we came out with.”

The Tar Heels will now move on to play Nebraska in the round of 16 in Urbana, Ill., next weekend, but for now, the seniors – Suarez-Malaguti, De Bruycker and McHale – have another matter to attend to on Sunday – graduation.

With the focus and excitement of the NCAA tournament, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the match Saturday was the last home match of their career at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center.

“I’m really glad we could end like that,” De Bruycker said. “I don’t know if it’s hit me. I’m starting to think about it, but our season’s not over yet, and hopefully we can get it done at the final site.”

McHale said she felt emotions ranging from sadness of the finality to happiness from all the memories she has.

“Today was my last match here, so that’s pretty emotional,” Suarez-Malaguti said. “It means a lot to me. (On Sunday), Zoe, Lauren and I will be walking (at graduation), but it’s not over yet. It doesn’t feel like it’s over.”

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