STILLWATER, Okla. – Turns out this match-play format provides fireworks. Almost always.
In the four years since the women’s NCAA Championship has switched from the stale, 72-hole stroke-play format the championship matches have been pure magic.
This year, for the third time in the past four years, the final outcome came down to the last match and Arizona took home its third title with a 3-2 victory over Alabama on Wednesday when junior Haley Moore defeated senior Lakareber Abe on the 19th hole.
The Wildcats also won NCAA titles in 1996 and 2000, the latter when Arizona coach Laura Ianello was on the team as a player.
“Arizona is my home, it is where I went to school and [the championship] needs to be back home,” Ianello said. “So I am so proud to be the coach to bring it back.
“I'm not going to lie, this one is a little bit more special to me. But it's what you work for. It's what you want. I think being a coach and trying to live for your players a little bit, it's pretty spectacular to win on this end. I'd say for me a little bit more.”
Two days ago, Arizona was in the midst of an epic collapse. The Wildcats were safely in the third position after 54 holes of stroke play and needed only to be inside the top eight after 72 holes to advance to the match-play portion of the event.
But they played the worst round of the day and were on the outside looking in with one hole remaining when junior Bianca Pagdanganan made eagle on the par-5 18th hole. That propelled the Wildcats into a playoff against Baylor that they ultimately won. (Pagdanganan's heroics earned her an exemption into the LPGA's Marathon Classic in July.)
On the first day of match play, Arizona continued to ride the wave of momentum by defeating Pac-12 rivals UCLA, the top seed, and Stanford, a match-play stalwart the past three years.
Next up for Arizona was Alabama, the top-ranked team in the country and the second seed this week after stroke play.
“Win or lose tomorrow, this has been a hell of a ride,” Ianello said, attempting to take pressure off her team, which, on paper, looked like an underdog.
But you know the saying, anything can happen in match play, and often does.
Alabama coach Mic Potter put out his three first-team All-Americans in the first three spots hoping to jump out to an early lead. Junior Lauren Stephenson played poorly in the opening match and lost, 4 and 3, to freshman Yu-Sang Hou.
Kristen Gillman and Cheyenne Knight dispatched Wildcats Gigi Stoll and Pagdanganan easily in the second and third matches.
Arizona’s Sandra Nordaas beat Angelica Moresco, 1 up, in the fourth match meaning the fifth and final match, which was all square after 16 holes, was going to decide the NCAA title.
Lakareber lost the 17th hole when her approach shot sailed well short and right of the green in thick, gnarly rough. She attempted to advance the ball but could not and headed to the final hole 1 down.
With seemingly every golf fan in Stillwater on site, including several men’s teams here to participate in next week’s championship, Abe hit a laser second shot into the par-5 18th hole setting up a 12-foot look for eagle. Moore missed her birdie putt and Abe won the hole to set up extra holes to decide the championship.
In the extra frame, Moore was left of the green in two shots and Abe was short in the greenside bunker. Moore chipped to 4 feet and Abe’s bunker shot was 6 feet away. Abe missed, Moore made and Arizona walked away with the hardware, making them the fourth consecutive Pac-12 team to win the women's championship, following Stanford, Washington and Arizona State.
“It means so much, it’s actually like a dream,” Moore said. “I’m just so happy for my team right now.”
Potter has been a head coach for 35 years – at both Furman and Alabama – and finally was able to collect his first NCAA Championship in 2012. Being so close to a second one will sting for quite a while but he will be able to live with the outcome for one simple reason.
“They fought their hearts out all year,” Potter said. “I just want to congratulate them for the way they battled, not only today, but in match play. Everyone gave their best on every shot - that’s all we can ask.”
Arizona def. Alabama, 3-2
Yu-Sang Hou (AZ) def. Lauren Stephenson (AL), 4 and 3
Kristen Gillman (AL) def. Gigi Stoll (AZ), 4 and 3
Cheyenne Knight (AL) def. Bianca Pagdanganan, 4 and 2
Sandra Nordaas (AZ) def. Angelica Moresco (AL), 1 up
Haley Moore (AZ) def. Lakareber Abe (AL), 19th hole