EUGENE, Ore. – Cheyenne Knight raced off the 18th green and into the arms of her waiting teammates.
She looked more relieved than overjoyed.
For good reason, too, because No. 1-ranked Alabama needed a final-day rally just to avoid missing the 54-hole cut Sunday at the NCAA Women’s Championship. The Crimson Tide shot a 2-over 290 in the third round to jump seven places, to 14th, though there’s still much work to be done if they hope to prolong their stay at Eugene Country Club.
The same can’t be said for fellow SEC rivals Florida and Georgia, which saw their seasons come to a surprising end when they failed to crack the top 15.
No. 4 Florida, which won an NCAA-best six times this season, finished at 22 over par, three shots off the cut line.
“We really had a good year and accomplished a lot,” Gators coach Emily Glaser said, “so it’s hard to get to this point and not make it a little bit further.”
No. 6 Georgia, fresh off a regional victory, finished at 23 over. Florida State grabbed the 15th and final spot, despite a third-round, 10-over 298.
“Disappointment is the only word I can think of,” Georgia coach Josh Brewer said. “You come here expecting and wanting to play on Wednesday, but to not even get to Monday, with the year we had … three weeks from now, when we look back, it’ll feel OK. But right now, you feel for the players. With all of the effort and how much we push then, it sucks.”
Save for Duke, which shot a Sunday-best 280 to surge into a tie for second, the top of the leaderboard resembles a Pac-12 Championship – no surprise, perhaps, given those teams’ familiarity with the time zone, the poa annua greens and the tree-lined course.
It’s one of the reasons why Brewer is already planning a trip to Chicago to begin scouting next year's NCAA venue, Rich Harvest Farms. He also expects that he’ll add a tournament next spring to play a course in the Midwest.
“I want to see what we have to get ready for,” he said.
Working against the pursuers was the fact that there hasn’t been much separation among the top teams this week – fourth and ninth place are only seven strokes apart – which can be attributed to the calm conditions, light rough, soft greens and lack of blowup holes.
With the Crimson Tide currently nine shots back of eighth place, Potter said his team likely needs a 6- or 8-under round Monday to reach the single-elimination match-play bracket. If nothing else, he knows it’s possible – Alabama had a low round going Sunday before the weather shifted on the back nine from warm and sunny to rainy and gusty. Potter figures his team lost five or six shots during that stretch.
The top teams after two rounds played Sunday morning, a tweak to the NCAA format this year that rewards good play early. That meant squads such as Alabama, Georgia and Florida got the worst draw with the conditions, not that they’ll receive any sympathy from the rest of the 24-team field.
“The 12 over the first day is what’s costly to us,” Potter said, “but I still think we have a round in us.”
Though Alabama might need help to reach the final eight, the Crimson Tide have a NCAA individual title contender in Knight, a freshman, who is tied for second at 7-under 206. The only problem is that she is six shots behind Duke’s Virginia Elena Carta, who broke the 54-hole NCAA scoring record.
At least Knight and the rest of the ’Bama players have a tee time Monday.
Brewer is already bracing for a difficult flight back to Athens.
“I feel for them,” he said. “For a college kid to be on TV, that’s a big deal, and now they don’t get to do that either. I’ll tell you what, though: This will only make us hungrier for next year.”