Women’s tennis: NU snags 13th Big Ten championship

Dan Ryan

The last time the Wildcats failed to win the Big Ten Tournament, freshman Belinda Niu was in grade school and coach Claire Pollard was considering a new head coaching position.

More than a decade later, this season’s team figured they might as well keep a good thing going.

Northwestern won its 13th straight Big Ten Tournament over the weekend, crushing Indiana and Illinois 4-0 in the first two rounds before securing a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over No. 10 Michigan in the finals.

For longtime coach Claire Pollard, this season’s win is among the best of her tenure.

“It ranks up there,” Pollard said. “The first one is probably the sweetest because I inherited an older team that had never won one before. To see their faces, it was almost like disbelief when they won it. But this ranks highly, especially under the circumstances. It was a tall order to have this team go back to Michigan after getting beat fairly convincingly a week ago.”

Just a short week ago, the Cats discovered the level they would have to play at in order to keep their streak going. NU dropped a demoralizing 6-1 match against Michigan to lose out on the No. 1 seed in the tournament for the second year in a row.

“We played tremendously better than we did last week,” Pollard said. “I felt like we competed hard and gave ourselves a lot more opportunity. We set the tone with a much better doubles point, a point we let slip away because we were certainly in control.”

Despite winning the first doubles match and holding a lead late into the second, the Cats could not hang on long enough to close out the Wolverines. Freshman Belinda Niu and senior Maria Mosolova let go of a 5-4 lead in their match, and the No. 1 line of freshman Nida Hamilton and sophomore Linda Abu Mushrefova dropped a tough 9-7 match to give Michigan the doubles point.

“We decided that we could look at it two ways: we could be down and out about it or we could just realize how much closer we were,” Pollard said. “That helped us realize that now we can turn around these singles matches.”

Things then went from bad to worse for NU. Sophomore Brittany Wowchuk was swept in her match 6-0 6-0 before junior Stacey Lee dropped her match 6-1 6-3, putting Michigan one team point away from breaking the Cats’ long hold on the title.

On the brink of losing, NU responded with two convincing wins of its own. Abu Mushrefova closed out her match 6-3 6-1 and sophomore Kate Turvy followed up with a strong 6-3 6-3 victory. At 3-2, four-time All-Big Ten honoree Mosolova rallied after losing the first set in her match for a 2-6 6-3 6-1 win, shocking Michigan and bringing the Cats all the way back.

With the championship on the line, it was the lone freshman, Niu, left on the courts. After losing the first set 1-6 and battling to take a tough second set 6-4, Niu found herself in the third set of the deciding match.

“I remember looking up at the scoreboard and seeing that it was 3-all and that Maria had won her third set 6-0 and that she really stepped up,” Niu said. “We always talk about how important it is to play your match when it matters most, so I felt even more determined to win the set and win the match for us.”

With Mosolova’s performance as added motivation, Niu dominated in the final frame, winning 6-2, clinching the title and sending the Cats into a frenzied celebration.

“It was outstanding,” Mosolova said. “We were down 3-0 in the match, and it just means so much for us to come back again like we did against Notre Dame and win this match, especially considering that we lost to them a week ago. Everybody did a great job competing, and Belinda did an amazing job clinching the match at 3-all. It was definitely a tough match, and it was nerve-wracking for her, but she did a great job handling it.”

The team looked revitalized after the humiliating defeat of last weekend, and Niu said the team felt like it had more to play for than it did the last time the teams met.

“We went in with a chip on our shoulder,” Niu said. “We wanted it, we wanted revenge. I think we were more feisty today and competed harder just because we had something to prove and our titles to defend. We wanted to get back at them for beating us last week.”

Even Mosolova, who has now been a part of four Big Ten Tournament wins, had to admit this year’s win was special.

“This definitely means a lot more to us just because when we lost to them in the regular season it wasn’t very close,” Mosolova said. “This match, we were down the whole time. We were down 3-0. The win came from everybody. Every match on the team mattered.”

With their regular and conference seasons complete, the Cats now wait to hear the seeding of the NCAA Tournament. The field will be announced Tuesday as the team continues its postseason run.

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