Cal keeps NCAA championship hopes alive with wins over San Jose State, Kentucky

Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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When they upset then-No. 3 UCLA in late February, the Cal women’s tennis team’s players and coaches made it clear that their primary goal this season was to claim their first NCAA tournament win. Roughly three months later, the Bears are on the heels of their first Pac-12 tournament trophy in program history and last weekend entered the NCAA tournament as the 16th seed. With wins over San Jose State and Kentucky in the first and second rounds of the tournament, respectively, Cal remains on track to accomplish what it has been intent upon achieving from the season’s early stages.

The Bears began their quest for a championship against the Spartans on Friday at Berkeley’s own Hellman Tennis Complex. San Jose State entered the match with a 15-1 regular-season record, which carried it to its second Mountain West title in school history. Yet, on this occasion, Pac-12 tournament champion Cal reminded the Spartans that there are levels to Division I women’s tennis. 

With top singles player Haley Giavara resting, the Bears scored a 4-0 sweep of their South Bay Area opponent. The blue and gold began the match with high intensity in doubles, earning dominant wins on the second and third courts to sprint to a 1-0 lead. Despite close matches on the first, third and sixth courts in singles, Valentina Ivanov, Hannah Viller Moeller and Anna Bright won efficiently on the other three courts to lead Cal comfortably into the second round of the tournament.

The following day, the blue and gold faced Kentucky (16-8), which had edged Syracuse in the first round. As a member of an SEC conference that boasted eight teams in the second round of the tournament and claimed four of the top 12 seeded positions, the Wildcats had had plenty of experience competing against top-caliber opponents heading into their encounter with the Bears. This competitive experience manifested itself as what can be most respectfully characterized as highly animated cheering from their players and supporters throughout the course of Saturday’s contest.

Yet, Cal handled Kentucky’s antics by remaining sharply focusing on its own tennis, which has been a defining characteristic of this squad as the season has drawn on. The Bears opened the match with a narrow and ultimately decisive doubles point victory after Ivanov and Giavara notched a 7-6(6) win over the Wildcats’ Akvile Parazinskaite and Fiona Arrese, currently the top-ranked doubles pairing in the country

After claiming the first set on four of six singles courts, Cal seemed poised to cruise into the third round. However, second-set comebacks by Kentucky’s Lesedi Jacobs and Carlota Molina on the second and third courts, respectively, complicated matters for the Bears.

Ultimately, the match came down to third sets on both the third and fourth courts, with the Bears needing to win one of the matches. After an unlucky net-cord bounce kept her from converting an earlier match point, Jada Bui eventually prevailed 7-5 in the third set to send Cal to the USTA National Campus in Orlando for the third round of the tournament. 

“We kind of knew how this was going to pan out today because it’s usually how SEC teams tend to be,” said head coach Amanda Augustus. “(The girls) really did such a good job of just dealing with all the things going on on the court today,” she added with a chuckle. In the third round, Cal will face North Carolina, which is the first overall seed and has yet to drop a match this season.

Regardless of what some might assume based on rankings, Cal will not enter the match with the mindset that it is the underdog or that it has nothing to lose. Rather, the Bears will look to improve to 3-0 against the Tar Heels in NCAA tournament play and step closer to their goal of a national title.

Milad Shafaie covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].