ORLANDO, Fla. – When sophomore Carson Tanguilig looked to the courts around her during her match-deciding third set, all she could see was her teammates playing every point like it was their last.
Beside her, junior Fiona Crawley launched a cross-court return to an unreachable spot, fighting back from down 5-6 to force a set tie-break. To Tanguilig’s left, senior Elizabeth Scotty was leading in her second set after a closely-fought first set and intense tie-break.
“It's a motivator,” Tanguilig said in the post-game press conference. “It's like, ‘If she can do it, like, why can't I do it?’”
The No. 1 North Carolina women’s tennis team won the program’s first-ever NCAA national championship with a 4-1 win against No. 3 N.C. State on Saturday. Crawley, Scotty and Tanguilig’s tie-break victories in singles contributed to clinching the match victory.
“This match was us,” head coach Brian Kalbas said at the press conference. “We were tough, we were determined, we were competitive, we were feisty and we were resilient.”
In a battle of sheer will, toughness and stamina, the Tar Heels played every point of the title match like it was the deciding one. The survivalist mentality was crucial to withstand long, physically-demanding rallies, deuce points and make-or-break tie-breakers.
Even though UNC grabbed the first team point behind an explosive doubles performance and ended N.C. State’s 11-game clinch streak, the Wolfpack did not back down. Five out of six singles matches went into a tie-break at some point in the match – including junior Reilly Tran and senior Anika Yarlagadda, who both forced a third set after falling in the first.
“We knew the matches were going to get longer and they were going to get tougher,” Kalbas said. “And, as the match went along, you could see our team getting tougher.”
When the first set wins were split evenly 3-3 between the two teams, all eyes fell on Scotty’s match to determine who held the advantage. Thanks to the doubles point, the Tar Heels only needed to win three singles matches, while the Wolfpack needed to win four.
Scotty fought back from a 5-6 deficit to force a set tie-breaker. If her first set was to end in a loss, UNC’s momentum would be stunted and control of the match could quickly slip through their fingers. And, when she fell behind 3-6 in the first-to-seven game, devastation seemed imminent – the next point could have easily been the last.
Jumping on the ball early, dictating ball movement and a double fault at the serve allowed the North Carolina senior to chip away at the deficit until it was tied once again. When Scotty finally took the lead, she did not relinquish it, giving her team a much-needed boost in momentum. Winning that first set was “gigantic,” according to Kalbas.
“She has an incredible way of knowing when the team really needs her and stepping up,” he said.
The fate of the championship hung in the balance once again when Tanguilig struggled to put away her match after dominating in the first, 6-4. With Crawley surviving a second set tie-breaker and Scotty closing in on a match victory, it was up to Tanguilig to add the final point or all the pressure would fall on Tran and Yarlagadda to complete their comebacks.
After dropping 4-6, the UNC sophomore said she focused on her serve, playing disciplined and staying in every point going into the final set. Minimizing N.C. State junior Amelia Rajecki’s forehand and outlasting her in drawn-out rallies pushed Tanguilig over the edge at the 2-2 breakpoint and a three-game winning streak carried her to the precipice of victory.
The teammates whose comebacks motivated her throughout her tie-breaker watched in anticipation on the sidelines through Tanguilig’s final game point – trusting that she would battle every point.
When she pounded her last forehand into the vacant side of the court and it bounced past Rajecki, the last point of the NCAA Tournament was finally won.
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