Women’s Tennis: Wildcats bringing their best for NCAA Tournament

Mike Marut, Reporter

Friday will mark the beginning of the NCAA Tournament across the country, and the Wildcats will once again be part of the festivities.

No. 11 Northwestern will begin its quest for the title at home against Illinois-Chicago.

“It’ll be interesting … playing in different conditions,” junior Belinda Niu said. “I was really happy when I found out we were hosting — especially because it’s been such a great experience playing on the new outdoor courts.”

Coming from the Big Ten, the Cats have faced some worthy competition that has prepared them for the NCAA Tournament. Michigan and Nebraska were the only two Big Ten teams to defeat NU during the regular season, and the Cats took both down in the Big Ten Tournament.

“It’s nice to have played some great tennis at the Big Ten Tournament, and we needed to in order to win it,” coach Claire Pollard said. “That’s certainly the level that you’ve got to perform at from now on and even at a higher level going forward.”

With the tournament on the horizon, one would think the team’s intensity would increase in practice. The Cats maxed out their intensity levels at the beginning of the season, and the players have not let up yet.

“We do a good job every day,” Pollard said. “They work hard. There’s no question we were playing at the highest level for the Big Ten, and we know we’ll need to be there again, and I anticipate that happening.”

UIC won’t be an easy opponent for the Cats. The Flames went 16-5 overall on the season and 8-1 in the Horizon League, winning their 17th consecutive conference title. Friday’s match will be the sixth time the teams have faced each other in the first round of the tournament.

“(UIC is) going to be a good team,” Pollard said. “Everyone’s great who is in the (tournament). We aren’t looking past them. I feel pretty good going in there.”

UIC has not faced a ranked opponent since they lost to Michigan in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The last time UIC faced NU, the Cats beat the Flames 4-0.  That match occurred in 2008, so now in 2013, both schools have completely new squads.

“We don’t really know too much about UIC,” senior Linda Abu Mushrefova said. “I’m sure it’ll be a good match because everyone is bringing their best for the last tournament of the year.”

The team is ready for anything in the NCAA Tournament. The Cats were the underdogs in the Big Ten Tournament, facing No. 2 Nebraska and No. 1 Michigan, and beat everyone’s expectations.

“This team is good at performing at big moments,” Pollard said. “I think that’s where experience in an older team helps in that realm. Getting up for everything over the season can be quite challenging.”

The Cats and Flames will be the second match in Evanston on Friday. Baylor will take on San Diego State in the morning match, with the winner moving on to face the winner between NU and UIC in the second round. The winner of the Evanston regional will head downstate to the campus of Big Ten rival Illinois with the winners of the 15 other regionals for the remainder of the team tournament.