Pioneers hold on for 4-2 win over Lenoir-Rhyne, advance to SAC finals

Pioneers hold on for 4-2 win over Lenoir-Rhyne, advance to SAC finals

ROCK HILL, S.C. --- South Atlantic Conference Player of the Year Annie McCullough won a three-set marathon for the clinching point as Tusculum University outlasted Lenoir-Rhyne University 4-2 in the semifinals of the SAC Women's Tennis Championship tournament Thursday afternoon at the Rock Hill Tennis Center.

McCullough defeated Gemma Southwick 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) at flight one in the clinching match as the top-seeded Pioneers (17-2) defeated the fourth-seeded Bears (18-5) to advance to the championship match against Wingate on Saturday at noon. The second-seeded Bulldogs defeated Queens 4-2 in the other semifinal match on Friday.

McCullough, ranked 37th in Division II in singles by the ITA, was first on the court for singles for the 17th-ranked Pioneers against Southwick, and appeared to be in control after winning the first set. Southwick, who was the only SAC player to win a set against McCullough all season in the regular-season meeting on March 29, took the second set to force a third and deciding set.

Southwick took a 5-4 lead and had two match points against McCullough, who saved them both to even the set at 5-5. After McCullough went up 6-5, Southwick came back to win her game and force a tiebreaker. However, McCullough closed the door in the breaker by winning the final two points to send the Pioneers into the championship match for the fourth time in the last six years and extend Tusculum's winning streak to 14 matches.

In doubles, the Pioneers won the final two matches after dropping the first completed contest at flight three. The Bears' Sanne Janssen and Lucy Whelan beat Emilie Hansen and Brittani Brooks 6-2, but 31st-ranked Annie and Caitlin McCullough defeated Marta Escanero Funes and Emily Murchland 6-3 at flight one and 37th-ranked Julia Lopez and Africa Mota teamed for a 6-4 win at flight two over Southwick and Diana Babinets.

In singles, Caitlin McCullough gave the Pioneers a 2-0 lead with a 6-1, 6-1 victory over Iulia Ponomareva at flight two, and Hansen pushed the Pioneers ahead 3-0 as she beat Babinets 6-2, 6-2 at flight three. However, Ally Garofoli started the Lenoir-Rhyne comeback as she defeated Martina Marras 6-2, 7-6 at flight three, and Funes cut the Tusculum lead to 3-2 as she held on for a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 win over Lopez at flight four.

The only match not played to completion was at flight six, where Lenoir-Rhyne's Murchland beat Mota 6-4 in the first set but trailed in the second set when the match was stopped.

Tusculum defeated Wingate 4-3 in Greeneville on April 6 as the Pioneers snapped the Bulldogs' 76-match winning streak in conference regular-season matches. Wingate is the top-ranked team in the Southeast Region in the first NCAA Division II regional rankings of the season, while Tusculum is ranked fourth.

Wingate is making its fifth consecutive appearance in the SAC Championship finals, but is looking for its first title since beating the Pioneers 5-1 in the 2015 championship match. The Bulldogs lost 5-4 to the Pioneers in the 2017 and fell to Queens in both the 2016 and 2018 final. Both Wingate and Tusculum have won four SAC Championship tournament titles, the most among active conference schools.