April 27, 2014
EVANSTON, Ill. -- Never underestimate the heart of a champion.
Senior Belinda Niu clinched a 16th-consecutive Big Ten title for the Northwestern women's tennis team, rallying from a 5-2 third-set deficit in the decisive match and giving the second-seeded Wildcats an utterly thrilling 4-3 win over top-seed Michigan in the Big Ten tournament title match Sunday afternoon.
Facing a 3-1 match deficit late, NU needed to win all three remaining matches on the courts. Lok Sze Leung got the first point as she battled past 125th-ranked Amy Zhu 7-5, 7-5.
After dropping her first set to Laura Ucros 6-1, senior Nida Hamilton launched a huge comeback. Hamilton knotted her match with a 6-3 win in the second set and then found herself ahead 5-2 in the final set. Ucros refused to go away, though, as she rallied to force a decisive tiebreak. Hamilton finished strong and was able to win the tiebreaker 7-4, deadlocking the match 3-3.
The match was left to be decided at the No. 2 spot where 41st-ranked Niu surged out to the early advantage with a 6-1 opening-set victory over 22nd-ranked Ronit Yurovsky. Niu held a 6-5 lead in the second set and was serving for the match, but Yurovsky broke Niu's serve and then won 7-2 in the tiebreaker to force a third set.
Things looked bleak for the Wildcats as Niu found herself down 5-2 and Michigan closed to within one game of the championship. Niu got one service break to stay alive and make it 5-3. With the jam-packed Combe Tennis Center crowd rocking, Yurovsky earned two championship points but Niu managed to hold to make it 5-4.
Soon after Hamilton won her tiebreaker, Niu broke again to knot the match 5-5. With momentum in her favor, the Portland native held and the broke Yurovsky a third straight time, setting off a wild celebration and giving Northwestern its 15th Big Ten tournament title in 16 years. Coupled with a regular-season title in 2012, the Wildcats have now claimed either a regular-season or tournament crown for 16 consecutive seasons.
The teams fought tooth-and-nail in two of the doubles matches in a battle to take an early lead in the match. A standing-room only crowd thoroughly enjoyed the intense battle.
At No. 2, the 85th-ranked team of Maddie Lipp and Nida Hamilton were completely dominant in rolling to victory. The Wildcats' duo broke the serve of 80th-ranked Yurovsky and Ucros in consecutive games to surge out to a 4-0 lead en route to an 8-2 win.
The other two matches were another story. In the No. 1 match, the Wildcats and Wolverines traded early breaks and then went back and forth throughout the remainder of their matchup. Trailing 7-6, the 28th-ranked Northwestern team of Alicia Barnett and Veronica Corning held sere to force a tiebreaker. NU fell behind 4-1, but rallied back to earn match points at 6-5 and 8-7 but were unable to take advantage as Michigan earned a hard-fought 10-8 win.
The Wolverines' pairing of Sarah Lee and Zhu appeared to be in control in their match as they went up by two breaks, but Niu and Brooke Rischbieth rallied back to get on serve on two occasions, including closing to within 7-6. However, Lee and Zhu broke right back to take the win 8-6 and earn the doubles point.
Despite dropping doubles for the second time in three days, the Wildcats showed their resilience to open singles action. Barnett, Corning, Niu and Manon Peri were each particularly impressive in their respective first sets.
Peri had no issues with Bolender at No. 4 as she rolled to a 6-0 victory while Niu cruised past Yurovsky and Barnett handled No. 124 Lee 6-3. However, the most outstanding performance came from 37th-ranked Corning who thoroughly frustrated Bektas, who is ranked 10th and was named and Big Ten Athlete of the Year, while taking the first set 6-2.
Corning had an opportunity to put away Bektas in the second set, leading 5-4 with a pair of match points against Bektas' serve. However, the Wolverine battled back to win the game as well as each of the next two before winning the third set 6-0 to put Michigan up 2-0 in the match.
Barnett dropped her second set, 2-6, to Lee but bounced back to take the third, 6-3, putting a Northwestern triumph on the board.
Michigan closed to within one victory of the match win after Bolender rallied back from getting shut out in her first set to take a 0-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Peri. With their backs against the wall, the Wildcats refused to see their incredible streak as Leung, Hamilton and Niu came through in the clutch.
Northwestern will learn its NCAA tournament destination Tuesday, April 29 when the pairings are announced.
#16 Northwestern 4, #17 Michigan 3
1. #10 Emina Bektas (MICH) def. #37 Veronica Corning (NU) 2-6, 7-5, 6-0
2. #41 Belinda Niu (NU) def. #22 Ronit Yurovsky (MICH) 6-1, 6-7 (2), 7-5
3. Alicia Barnett (NU) def. #124 Sarah Lee (MICH) 6-3, 2-6, 6-3
4. Brooke Bolender (MICH) def. Manon Peri (NU) 0-6, 6-3, 6-4
5. Lok Sze Leung (NU) def. #125 Amy Zhu (MICH) 7-5, 7-5
6. Nida Hamilton (NU) def. Amy Ucros (MICH) 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4)
Order of Finish: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2*
1. #17 Emina Bektas / Brooke Bolender (MICH) def. #28 Veronica Corning / Alicia Barnett (NU) 8-7 (10-8)
2. #85 Maddie Lipp / Nida Hamilton (NU) def. #80 Ronit Yurovsky / Laura Ucros (MICH) 8-2
3. Sarah Lee / Amy Zhu (MICH) def. Brooke Rischbieth / Belinda Niu (NU) 8-6
Order of Finish: 2, 1, 3*
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