Trailing 1-5 in the first set, freshman Sonia Smagina’s fate looked to be sealed against Florida’s Marlee Zein in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. However, unwilling to give in, Smagina battled all the way back from the large deficit, picking up a 7-5 first-set victory.
Momentum in her favor and all eyes on court four, Smagina soon after found herself in position to clinch the victory and send the Jayhawks to their first Sweet 16 since 1998, leading Zein 5-4 with Kansas holding a 3-2 edge in the match.
Unaltered by the pressure, the freshman stepped up for Kansas, defeating Zein 7-5, 6-4 to clinch the overall match and advance the Jayhawks to the Sweet 16.
“Once she [Smagina] got focused on the right things and focused on playing tennis and then her game plan and the weaknesses of what her opponent couldn’t do, she calmed down and played tennis. but there for awhile we were battling emotions, but that happens with a freshman,” Kansas coach Todd Chapman said of Smagina’s comeback. “It’s a big match, a big situation, and she wanted to win so badly I think that sometimes it keeps you from doing the things that you want to.”
Beginning Saturday with doubles at the Jayhawk Tennis Center, Kansas set the pace early, picking up the doubles point over the Gators by virtue of wins on courts three and one. The Kansas tandem of junior Maria Toran Ribes and freshman Malkia Ngounoue claimed the first victory of the day, besting Florida’s Zein and Sydney Berlin 6-3 to give the Jayhawks the edge.
While the No. 2 duo of senior Anastasia Rychagova and freshman Sonia Smagina was unable to outlast the Gators, falling 6-3, Kansas’ top-ranked team of seniors Nina Khmelnitckaia and Janet Koch picked up the slack, handling McCartney Kessler and Victoria Emma 6-3 to clinch the doubles.
Entering singles with the 1-0 lead, Kansas took advantage of the doubles momentum, quickly extending the lead to 2-0 at the racket of Toran Ribes. Competing on court six, the junior made quick work of Berlin, toppling the Gator 6-2, 6-3 for the first singles win.
At risk of a sweep, Tsveta Dimitrova got Florida onto the board, handing Khmelnitckaia a rare 3-6, 2-6 loss at the No. 5 spot, cutting the Gator deficit to a slim 1-2 margin. However, Kansas freshman Plobrung Plipuech reopened the gap on court three, defeating Emma 6-2, 6-3 to put the Jayhawks up 3-1.
The Gators’ final point of the day came on court two, where Koch rounded out a struggle-filled day for the senior class, falling 5-7, 4-6 to Kessler.
Fortunately for the Jayhawks, the freshmen came through in an unusual off-day for the veteran trio of Koch, Khmelnitckaia and Rychagova.
“I was telling Nas [Rychagova] that it’s crazy they basically did it without us,” Koch said. “It’s good to see our younger ones picking it up for us, getting to see that we can just play free and they will have our back and step up in the big moments.”
With this win, Kansas will return to action next weekend in the Sweet 16, where the location is yet to be determined. Coming off of a big win in front of a home crowd, Chapman is confident in his squad’s ability to survive and advance.
“I think we’re talented enough to lineup and compete against anyone in the country. But then again, we have to go out and play, so I think we don’t focus on where we can go long term, we just focus on the next team.”