It was a winner-take-all match for the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship Saturday and it more than lived up to the hype. For Florida, however, it was a heartbreaking end on the last day of the season, as the No. 10 Gators dropped a 4-3 decision to No. 3 Vanderbilt at Linder Stadium at the Ring Tennis Complex.
“Great fight,” UF coach Roland Thornqvist said. “A lot of class from Vanderbilt, too, because we really had them in a deep, deep, deep hole and they found a way to beat us in three three-setters in the end.
“Rewind a week ago, and we won three of four three-setters against South Carolina. I have a lot of respect for what the Vandy kids did today. We tried to run it, roll it, it was hot and I’m sure they haven’t seen that too much but they found a way to get through in some three setters.”
Florida (16-7, 11-2 SEC) honored its three seniors – Anna Danilina, Josie Kuhlman and Peggy Porter – in a prematch ceremony before Vanderbilt dominated the doubles action, winning 6-1 on Court 2 and 3 to take a quick 1-0 lead in the dual match.
The Gators regrouped in singles and won the first set on four of the six courts.
Freshmen Victoria Emma and McCartney Kessler gave Florida a 2-1 lead after winning on their respective courts, followed shortly afterward by Danilina’s great battle on the showcase court that lifted the Gators to 3-1 in the team scoring. Emma topped Emma Kurtz, 6-1, 6-4, on Court 4 and Kessler downed Amanda Meyer, 6-1, 6-4 on Court 3 for her 11th straight SEC singles win, as she finished the regular-season with a team-best 11-1 record.
Danilina upset sixth-ranked Fernanda Contreras, 7-5, 6-1, on court one for her 10th consecutive SEC singles victory and cap her league record at 10-1 this year.
The momentum was all in Florida’s favor, as Kuhlman was steamrolling in her second set on the way to forcing a deciding third. Katie Kubicz was on serve midway through her second set after winning the first. Porter held a 3-1 with the serve in the second after taking the first set in a tiebreak.
The Gators needed just one of those matches to win an improbable SEC title. Vanderbilt (19-3, 12-1), however, kept battling.
Emily Smith won the final three games against Kubicz to force a third set, where she rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win five straight games and the match that tightened Florida’s leads to 3-2.
Rosca, ranked 20th in the country, returned to her first-set form and downed Kuhlman, 6-2, in the third and the team match was even at 3-3.
All eyes turned to Court 5, where Porter was serving with a 3-1 lead in the second. Summer Dvorak found a way to win six consecutive games to win the second set and hold for a 1-0 lead in the third.
Porter regrouped and held en route to taking a 4-1 lead in the third, heading to the baseline to serve that sixth game. Dvorak again channeled that fight and ripped off the final five games to win the 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4 decision in two hours and 35 minutes that clinched Vanderbilt’s second overall and consecutive SEC regular-season title.
The seedings and draw for the SEC Tournament will be unveiled tonight. Florida has earned a double-round bye and won’t play until Friday. Action at the 14-team event gets underway Wednesday in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Women’s golf: At Athens, Ga., the Gators had sophomores Sierra Brooks and Marta Perez finish inside of the top 25 at the Liz Muphey Collegiate Classic.
For the second straight round, Perez carded a sub par round to help her move up five spots on the leaderboard. Perez tied for 25th in the event at 5-over for the tournament. This is Perez’ seventh top 25 finish in 10 events this season which leads the team.
Brooks was the Gators top finisher for the fourth straight event and fifth time overall this spring. She would turn in a final round score of 73 (+1) to total a 216 (E) for the event.
The Gators finished 10th at 898 (+34). Alabama won with a 849 (-15).
Men’s golf: At Nashville, Saturday’s play at the Mason Rudolph was canceled due to inclement weather in the area.
The tournament is now scheduled to be 54 holes with the final round set for 10 a.m. today. Teams will have fixed tee times going off of holes No. 1 and No. 10.
The Gators are in fourth at 11-over par with three players sitting inside of the top 10.