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Rice women’s tennis celebrates back-to-back conference championships

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Rice women’s tennis coach Elizabeth Schmidt expects her team to fight from the first point to the last point.

That intention was illustrated quite well in the Owls 4-2 win over Tulsa Sunday in the Conference USA Tournament championship match in Norfolk, Va.

Rice freshman Katherine Ip lost the first set in No. 3 singles to Marcelina Cichon 6-0.

“I was just trying to hang in the match, and didn’t want to finish it too quickly,” Ip said in the post-match press conference.

The Hong Kong native did more than hang around. Ip won the second set 7-6. Her 6-3 victory in the third set clinched Rice’s second straight conference title and sent the Owls back to the NCAA Tournament.

“I have clinched for Rice before, but this one meant the most because it was my first conference tournament, and it was a clinch for the championship,” Ip said. “I’m really happy.”

No. 29 Rice (17-6) was the No. 2 seed in the C-USA tournament. The Owls swept host Old Dominion Friday and North Texas Saturday to advance to the title match against top-seed Tulsa (17-5). It was the fifth straight season Rice and Tulsa met in the tournament with Tulsa winning in 2010, 2011 and in the 2012 title match. Rice beat the Golden Hurricane in the 2013 championship match.

The Owls on Sunday picked up the doubles point when Natalie Beazant and Liat Zimmermann downed Cichon and Renata Kuricova 8-3. Dominique Harmath and Alison Ho of Rice had earlier won their doubles match 8-2.

Singles didn’t start out as well for the Owls. While Beazant and Ho won their matches in straight sets, Rice’s other four singles players all lost the opening set.

“It was nice to get those quick wins on the board, but at the same time we had lost the first set in the other four matches, so we knew we were in for the long haul despite the fact we were up 3-0,” Schmidt said. “I was proud of Natalie. She struggled a bit in the middle of the season. She has come back to play solid tennis in the tournament. Allison has been rock solid as a freshman. Our two freshmen stepped up huge today. They played with a lot of poise and like they had experience under their belt.”

Zimmerman and Kimberly Anicete ended up losing, so Rice’s lead was cut to 3-2. Harmath was battling in No. 2 singles, but she was down a set and losing 6-5 in the second. That match went unfinished as Ip clinched the title in No. 3 singles.

“College tennis is a team sport,” Schmidt said. “This is a total team effort. Even people who didn’t win their matches, made an impact by staying out there a little longer and pushing through.”

Rice will find out April 29 where they will be sent for the NCAA Tournament. First round matches will begin on May 9. It will be Rice’s third straight trip to the tournament. Tulsa is expected to make it as well as an at-large selection.

“Congratulations to Tulsa on a great season,” Schmidt said. “They always are tough competitors. They bring it every day. We had to have everything we could muster to pull out this win today. I’m really proud of our team for the effort, coming back from losing some first sets, battling and staying out there. I couldn’t be more excited for the team. They’ve worked really hard to get here. To finish it off with a victory is really sweet.”