April 19, 2012
OXFORD, Miss. - Despite losing the first set on four courts in singles to No. 9-seed Auburn, eighth-seeded Tennessee has earned the right to compete in the quarterfinals of the SEC Women's Tennis Tournament for the 18th consecutive year and 22nd time in 23 years.
Playing in the final first round match Thursday hosted at Ole Miss, the Lady Vols (14-11) rallied to defeat Auburn, 4-2.
Tennessee, playing in its first opening round contest at the SEC Tournament since 2008, competed with a full lineup for the second time since March 11. The Lady Vols improved to 13-3 when at full strength.
One of those losses came to top-seeded Florida (March 2), which Tennessee will face in the SEC quarterfinals Friday at 7 p.m. ET.
"We've got three really good players at the top of our lineup," co-head coach Mike Patrick said. "They did a great job of doing what they do. We've had a lot of adversity in the last couple of weeks with the injuries and stuff. A couple of our kids at the bottom had not played or practiced or done much of anything. We're just glad we had six people today, and that was a positive. For Jo Henderson to stay out there and get into the third set really helped Kata (Szekely) because she had a slow start but got in control at the end. I'm real proud of them and the effort on their part, considering where we're at and our health issues."
Grace and Williams fell in straight sets, but it was Szekely's comeback that proved to be the difference.
Henderson had also overcome a 5-2 second-set deficit to force a third set, but Szekely's fourth consecutive win put the stamp on UT's 4-2 victory.
"She just grinded it out, but she's done that a lot though," Patrick said. "Like I said, our top three kids have a lot of experience and a lot of fight in them. Kata's the only one that's played every match all year long. The rest of them, we've had somebody out all the time. She's a junior, and she played like a real veteran player tonight."
The Lady Vols took a 1-0 lead by winning the doubles point for the 20th time this season, via wins from Henderson and Grace (8-3) and Boren and Williams (8-4). Auburn tied the match, 1-1, as Grace fell 6-1, 6-0 to Olivia Bennett.
But for the 11th time in 13 matches, Boren walked away victorious, using a 6-3, 6-2 win over Emily Flickinger to propel UT to a 2-1 lead.
Williams, back in action for the first time since April 1 because of lingering injuries, lost 6-1, 6-2 to Jackie Kasler as Tennessee and Auburn found themselves knotted up again, this time at two.
Pluskota, who used a tiebreaker to win her first set, put the Lady Vols in winning position with a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win over Jen Pfeifler, winning for the fourth time in five matches.
From there, it was Szekely's time to shine, setting up a rematch with third-ranked Florida.
"It's definitely a good thing to get a win but for our team where it is right now it's better that we all get to play," Patrick said. "To be able to come back out and play and beat a team that played Alabama really closely last week, and competed really hard against us was great for our team."
Tennessee defeated Auburn for the second time this season and 22nd consecutive time overall, the Lady Vols' longest all-time winning streak against any opponent.
The Lady Vols have played Florida in the last two SEC Championship matches, falling both times.
"We play an unbelievably tough Florida team tomorrow," Patrick said. "We're going to try and compete as well as we can, with as many as we can. That's what we do. Hopefully we can use these next couple of weeks to really get healthy before the NCAA's."
#8 Tennessee 4, #9 Auburn 2
1. #35 Natalie Pluskota (UT) def. Jen Pfeifler (AU) 7-6 (4), 6-3
2. #28 Brynn Boren (UT) def. Emily Flickinger (AU) 6-3, 6-2
3. #52 Kata Szekely (UT) def. Plamena Kurteva (AU) 2-6, 6-3, 6-1
4. Jackie Kasler (AU) def. Caitlyn Williams (UT) 6-1, 6-2
5. Joanna Henderson (UT) vs. Paulina Schippers (AU) 3-6, 7-6 (7), unfinished
6. Olivia Bennett (AU) def. Jesse Grace (UT) 6-1, 6-0
1. #10 Natalie Pluskota/Kata Szekely (UT) vs. Emily Flickinger/Jackie Kasler (AU) 5-5, unfinished
2. Brynn Boren/Caitlyn Williams (UT) def. #75 Paulina Schippers/Jen Pfeifler (AU) 8-4
3. Joanna Henderson/Jesse Grace (UT) def. Taylor Schreimann/Plamena Kurteva (AU) 8-3
Order of finish: Doubles (3, 2); Singles (6, 2, 4, 1, 3)
Records: Tennessee (14-11), Auburn (8-13)