Florida succumbs to Florida State rally, 4-3

The University of Florida's Josie Kuhlman returns the ball during a first round match-up against Youngstown State in the 2018 NCAA Women's Tennis Championship. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

By Jim Harvin

For more than three hours, eighth-ranked Florida and 21st-ranked Florida State went at it under a broiling sun Saturday at the Varsity Courts before a Linder Stadium crowd of 429.

FSU won the doubles point, but UF bounced back to win the first three singles matches to take a 3-1 lead, only to slowly watch the lead evaporate point by point until the Seminoles had pulled out a pulsating 4-3 win to end the Gators’ season.

The second-round loss was the earliest exit for Florida, last year’s national champions, from the NCAA Tournament since 2004.

“Well first, I must say that Florida State played just a fantastic match, and obviously we have to congratulate them,” UF coach Roland Thornqvist said. “I thought we had a huge ask today because they’re good on all six courts. They’re good in doubles, and I knew there was going to be small, small margins that decided this match.

“The thought I have is just how wonderful this team was. I can’t begin to explain to you how proud I am of this group.”

After the Seminoles (19-12) won the doubles point, the Gators (19-9) responded with wins at No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 singles from seniors Anna Danilina, Josie Kuhlman and Peggy Porter to take a 3-1 lead.

A win by FSU’s Gabriella Castenada at No. 4 made it 3-2, but there were two matches still to be finished and UF only needed to win one of them.

It didn’t happen.

First, UF freshman McCartney Kessler succumbed to cramps and had to be carried from the courts, retiring from her match at No. 3, which was tied at the time.

That made the score 3-3, leaving it all up to court No. 6 where another freshman, Katie Kubicz, was battling with FSU’s Andrea Garcia.

Kubicz gave it her all, but it wasn’t enough as Garcia pulled out the 6-3, 6-7 (6-8), 6-4 win to put the ‘Noles into the Round of 16 in Winston-Salem, N.C., next week.

“It was obviously heartbreaking to lose,” Danilina said. “I think it was a great college match. We came out strong and we fought hard. All the girls tried their best. We gave everything we could. We just came up short a little bit. I’m really proud of this group of girls.”

Fellow senior Josie Kuhlman echoed those sentiments.

“It was a tough match, but we knew it was going to come down to the wire,” Kuhlman said. “Little things made the difference. I didn’t think it was over until it was over. It was heartbreaking.”

FSU coach Jennifer Hyde, on the other hand, was understandably excited.

“We knew that today was going to come down to the absolute end,” she said. “This time of year, we expect nothing less. I honestly can’t put into words how proud I am of this group. They took punch after punch and they withstood it. They withstood a really hostile crowd and some very good tennis from the other side of the net and they just kept bringing it.”