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WACO, Texas (AP) — Vanderbilt was two points from its first NCAA women's team tennis title on one court when a UCLA rally shifted the focus to Astra Sharma three courts away.
No big deal for the redshirt freshman from Perth, Australia. She just finished off her third straight three-set victory of the tournament to unseat the defending national champion.
The fourth-seeded Commodores clinched a 4-2 victory Tuesday night with Sharma's 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Chanelle Van Nguyen at No. 2 singles. Vanderbilt won the title 14 years after the school's only other trip to the finals, a loss to Stanford.
"It was very nerve-racking, that feeling of the entire championship on my shoulders," said Sharma, who also had three-set victories against top-seeded Southern California in the semifinals and Florida in the quarterfinals. "I just really had to regroup and just reframe the pressure and just feel like, she's as nervous as I am and it's no big deal."
Marie Casares had a chance to win the title in No. 5 singles, with a 6-5 lead in the second set against Kyle McPhillips, who played the clinching match when UCLA won its second championship, 4-3 over North Carolina last year.
McPhillips rallied and won in a tiebreaker, and they were still playing when Van Nguyen sent a forehand wide against Sharma to set off a raucous celebration.
"I did have a moment of, 'We could have had it now,'" Casares said. "But I knew that we were still in it. And Astra was fighting and that I was going to fight."
After Casares was forced to a third set, Frances Altick lost on the court next to her when she had her third call overturned by the chair umpire. The resulting point penalty gave UCLA's Jennifer Brady the tiebreaker for a straight-set win.
"There were times when I'm like, 'Wow, it's not looking good,'" said UCLA coach Stella Sampras Webster, whose team was seeded seventh and making its ninth trip to the finals. "And then, 'Wow, we're coming back.' It felt like we were in it the entire time. Felt like we were going up a hill. Never could get on top."
After making sure Altick didn't lose her composure on the court, Vanderbilt coach Geoff Macdonald kept his focus on the Casares match, knowing the outcome could be decided by Sharma behind him. And he did sneak a few peeks that way.
"I just kept trying to take deep breaths and try to keep really calm and positive in my body language," said Macdonald, in his 21st season at Vanderbilt. "I wanted to make sure I didn't get wrapped up too much in Astra's match. Marie was in such a battle."
The Commodores, who took the doubles point earlier when Casares and Altick beat Van Nguyen and Maia Magill in the deciding match, went up 3-1 with straight-set victories by Courtney Colton at No. 4 and Ashleigh Antal at No. 6.
UCLA's first point came from Robin Anderson, the tournament's top seed, in a 6-4, 6-1 win over Sydney Campbell.
"We've been through so many close matches this year," Macdonald said. "I just kept saying to myself, 'I love these kids. I love the way they're competing.' And focused on that and not winning and losing."