By Jeff Owens | Photos by Allen Sharpe and Jeff Owens
With a spot in the NCAA Elite Eight on the line, South Carolina’s Ingrid Martins, Mia Horvit and their teammates were at their best Saturday, dominating No. 13 seed Southern Cal to keep their national championship hopes alive.
The No. 3 Gamecocks won their 13th straight match and their third straight in the NCAA Tournament.
Horvit calls it their “humble swag.”
“We are thinking about the bigger picture,” said Horvit, who won her singles match Saturday and teamed with Martins for a doubles victory that led South Carolina to a 4-0 win over the Trojans. “The biggest thing is getting that natty championship so each day we are just pushing each other and have that humble swag so we can see the big picture.”
After losing in the Sweet 16 each of the past two seasons, the No. 3 Gamecocks weren’t about to fall short this season. They improved to 23-3 advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008. They will play Duke next Friday in Orlando for a spot in the Final Four.
“It’s great. This was a goal all year for our team,” said head coach Kevin Epley, who has led the Gamecocks to seven straight NCAA appearances. “We came up short last year against Georgia and we left with our heads hung low. We came this year and said we wanted to do a lot better in tournament season. Obviously we did well in the SEC Tournament and that gave us some confidence to get through this one today.”
“The first time advancing to the Elite Eight, it’s really exciting,” Horvit said. “Everybody is thrilled and super pumped up for the next match. But it’s not over yet.”
After winning three straight matches over top-10 teams to win the SEC championship, South Carolina beat North Florida and Virginia at home last week to make the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. Saturday they dominated a South California team they had lost to in a match at the Australian Open in January.
“We were excited to play them and get another shot at them,” Epley said. “I felt like we played a little better tennis today. They fought hard, but I thought we were a little too tough today.”
Martins and Horvit set the tone early, beating the No. 1 doubles team in the nation, 6-1, to give South Carolina an early edge in doubles. Megan Davies and Rachel Rohrabacher then rallied from a 4-2 deficit to win their match 7-5 and clinch the doubles point.
“That was huge,” Epley said. “Ingrid and Mia had been in and out a little bit and today they committed to being aggressive, so that was huge.”
"We had the mindset of being dominant and being aggressive and playing our game and don’t think about who is on the other side of the court,” Martins said. “But I think now we are the No. 1, right?”
In singles play, Rohrabacher, a senior, thoroughly dominated her opponent at the No. 6 spot, winning 6-1, 6-1 and clinching the match with an overhead smash. That put the Gamecocks up 2-0 with four of the other five players all up a set.
“Rachel getting off the court early was really good, put another point on the board,” Epley said. “When you get two on the board, you can see the finish line and she did that in pretty short order.”
Up 2-0, the Gamecocks had a momentary setback when No. 2 singles player Paige Cline went down with a hyperextended knee while up 6-3, 2-2. But Martins and Horvit finished off their opponents in straight sets at No. 1 and No. 3, scoring the final two team points almost simultaneously.
Martins, ranked No. 4 in the nation in singles, has now won her last eight singles matches, while Horvit has won nine in a row.
“Across the board, we did pretty well,” Epley said. “Ingrid came out and didn’t back off at all and Mia founder her game. When we’re rolling in those spots, we’re real tough.”
“It’s show time,” said Martins, a senior. “This is everything we have worked for the whole season. For me, it’s my last season, so I have a little extra push. And Mia has been playing really well and playing for the seniors and the team. We want big things, we are thinking big, so we just have to keep working.”
After an emotional celebration, the team posed for a team photo to commemorate their Sweet 16 victory. Then Martins and Horvit got together and took their own selfie, continuing a tradition from the last two seasons.
“We have been doing this for three years,” Martins said. “We did it for the Sweet 16 and now that we have made it to the Elite Eight, we had to do it again. It’s my last home match here so it’s special and we had to do it.”