Pepperdine’s Luisa Stefani assumed control when it mattered most.
Having dropped a tough first set in a tiebreaker to Georgia's Ellen Perez, Stefani stepped up and took over the only three-setter of Friday's dual match at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex.
With fifth-seeded Georgia and 12th-seeded Pepperdine’s match coming down to Court 1, Stefani came through and clinched Pepperdine's berth into the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships with a 6-7 (8), 6-2, 6-2 win over Perez.
Stefani's win gave Pepperdine a 4-3 dual-match victory.
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It was the first time that Stefani and Perez played against one another. The two have been distant friends who do chat with one another occasionally on social media. They have run into each other at tournaments, making this top-15 showdown one for each to remember.
And for Stefani, she said it was the second time this season a dual match came down to her court.
"I always wanted to play Georgia at home," Stefani said. "I know Ellen, she's a great player and a good friend. I think when the match came down to both of us, I just appreciated the fact it came down to me. I didn't want to disappoint anyone. But I didn't really think about it. I just thought about playing each point. I knew my teammates needed me and they were there cheering."
Perez commended Stefani's play by saying her serve picked up in the second and third sets. That combined with what Perez felt were too many unforced errors proved to be too much to overcome.
"She makes you have to really earn the point," Perez said. "But it was really on my racquet. I just came up with a few too few many errors."
Stefani and Perez’s third set opened at 1-1 with Stefani then breaking Perez to take a 2-1 lead. Perez answered quickly on Stefani’s subsequent service game to tie the set back up at 2-all. But from there, Stefani would take the next four games to win the match.
Perez won the first set in a tiebreaker, moving ahead by a point at 9-8 following a smoldering forehand for a winner. The next point featured a short rally with Stefani, who dropped her racquet to momentarily celebrate, hitting an unforced error long to give Perez the set.
Stefani, however, regrouped and rolled through the second set to set up the winner-take-all final set of the dual match.
Pepperdine, despite its No. 12 seed, is one of the hottest teams in the nation. The Waves are riding a 19-match winning streak, with its last loss coming to Ohio State on March 4. The Waves will face Vanderbilt, which beat California 4-1, in the quarterfinals Sunday.
Following Pepperdine's victory in the doubles point, the Waves took a 2-0 lead when 19th-ranked Ashley Lahey defeated Georgia’s 20th-ranked Elena Christofi 6-4, 6-0.
Georgia (19-6) then got on the scoreboard with a win from No. 52 Kennedy Shaffer, who defeated No. 37 Mayar Sherif Ahmed 6-2, 6-3. Pepperdine (24-4) then moved ahead 3-1 with a win from Jean Runglerdkriangkrai, who defeated Marta Gonzalez 6-4, 6-3 on Court 5.
The Bulldogs were able to even the score after consecutive wins. First, it was Mariana Gould, who beat Dzina Milovanovic 6-4, 6-3 on Court 6. Georgia then got a match-tying win from No. 66 Caroline Brinson, who upended No. 97 Laura Gulbe 6-2, 6-3 on Court 4.
Georgia dropped what would wind up being a crucial doubles point to open the match. Pepperdine’s 53rd-ranked tandem of Stefani and Runglerdkriangkrai outlasted Georgia’s 38th-ranked duo of Christofi and Shaffer in a 6-4 clinching win on Court 2.
The Waves also got a win on Court 1 in a 6-4 win from eighth-ranked Ahmed and Christine Maddox over Georgia’s third-ranked Perez and Brinson. Georgia got its lone doubles win on Court 3, with Gonzalez and Gould defeating Milovanovic and Lahey 6-3.
Georgia head coach Jeff Wallace noted how vital the doubles point was with the benefit of hindsight. Even so, things were looking up after Georgia moved ahead in the first set of four singles matches.
"If you get the doubles point it's a whole different day," Wallace said. "We've been playing all year with this doubles point and you're not going to get it every single time. You have to be able to battle, change things around and win as many first sets as you can. When you win four first sets it doesn't mean you're going to take that match but it certainly helps."