May 20, 2011
STANFORD, CA – The only thing that was keeping Masha Belaya going during her Sweet 16 match in the NCAA Championships was Florida’s overpowering fanbase.
“The crowd was making me mad,” the freshman said. “I didn’t want to give up. It was kind of pushing me forward.”
If anyone had a reason to give up in Clemson’s 4-1 loss to the second-ranked Gators it was Belaya. Playing with an injured foot that got noticeably worse during her three-set match against Florida’s Alex Cercone, the Melbourne, FL native pushed the Gators’ top freshman to the limit before falling 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-7 (7-5) at No. 5 singles.
“It’s weird for me to think that I lost because I thought I had it,” said Belaya, who injured the foot in last week’s regional win over Arkansas. “I had my chances, especially in that third set, but my movement was limiting me.”
It limited her enough that she was unable to stay in rallies more than three or four shots. Cercone took advantage of Belaya’s injury by moving the ball all over the court. Though she was hobbling around, Belaya fought off two match points from Cercone to force a third-set tiebreaker in spite of her injury.
“I told her to do the best she can,” Clemson Head Coach Nancy Harris said. “That was an incredible match. I just love Masha’s game style and the way she steps up. She is a beautiful and aggressive player and she is only going to get better.
“Maybe if she had her feet under her a little better, she might have had a few more points that would have made a difference, who knows? It could have gone either way. We certainly gave our best.”
Belaya wasn’t the only freshman that played well. Klara Vyskocilova won Clemson’s lone point, beating Florida’s Sofie Oyen–a first-team All-SEC performer–in straight sets 6-3, 6-3 at flight three. Oyen was 9-0 in SEC play this spring.
“That was a solid win,” Harris said. “When Klara makes up her mind, she doesn’t lose a match. That was the attitude that she had today going into the match.”
In fact, Vyskocilova’s point was just the second loss by the Gators in singles play since March 13. They were 56-1 prior to Vyskocilova’s victory.
“She really never pressured me,” the Clemson freshman said. “I would rally with her, and then I just would smack it. That was my game plan.
“She is a great player. She has a lot of experience. It was a good win for me.”
Despite the loss, Clemson played one of its better matches of the season. All of Florida’s singles win came in three sets. The Tigers top player, Josipa Bek, was actually leading Florida’s Allie Will–the No. 7 player in the country–5-2 in the third set when Florida clinched the match.
“I just told our team it’s been a long time since we’ve been tested like that–probably since the finals of the National Team Indoors against Stanford,” Florida Head Coach Roland Thornqvist.
Bek at one point had three match points in the second set and another in the third set. Caroline Magnusson forced a third set as well against Caroline Hitmana at flight 6 when the match ended.
Clemson actually won five of the first six sets in the singles competition and at one point led in all three doubles matches.
“I was really proud of our fight,” Harris said. “We really should have had the doubles point, too. That was the key to it as well. That would have helped a little bit with the momentum.
“But, my hats off to Florida, they never gave up. They had their backs against the wall a few times, but they came back.”
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