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Clutch save pushes Kent State to match play

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – His team in a free fall, his player coming off a double bogey, Greg Robertson kept his mouth shut.

Kent State was clinging to the eighth and final spot at the NCAA Women’s Championship, and he didn’t say a word to sophomore Michaela Finn as she sized up her 167-yard third shot into the par-5 18th hole at Rich Harvest Farms.

Make par, and the Golden Flashes advance to match play for the first time.

Make bogey, and they drop into a team playoff with North Carolina, which had been in the clubhouse for hours.

“I didn’t tell her anything,” Robertson said afterward. “What’s she going to do, try harder?”

And so Finn, already 9 over for the day, dumped her third shot into the greenside bunker. She splashed out (and nearly holed it) and left herself 5 feet as her teammates waited on anxiously.

“The first putt over 3 feet I made all day,” she said with a smile.

Finn’s clutch par save sent Kent State to the quarterfinals and put a wrap on a wild final hour at the NCAA Championship, where temperatures plunged into the 50s, the wind howled up to 30 mph, and making par was the ultimate goal.

The Golden Flashes’ closing 24-over 312 was the worst round of the day, but it doesn’t matter now – they’ll be 0-0 when they square off against top seed and local favorite Northwestern on Tuesday morning.

“It’s a new ballgame now,” Robertson said.

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All five Northwestern players finished inside the top 25 individually as the Wildcats advanced to match play a year after missing out by a shot.

Grabbing the second seed was Stanford, which joined Southern Cal as the only programs to reach match play each of the past three seasons. In the quarterfinals, the Cardinal will face Baylor, the team they beat on the way to the 2015 title.

This is a new-look Baylor program, with USC transfer Amy Lee providing a much-needed boost.

Last spring, Baylor failed to reach NCAA regionals just a year after falling short in the finals. The day after Big 12s ended, Bears coach Jay Goble met Lee for a visit in Waco, and he convinced her to leave the big-city life and all of the distractions that had derailed her game.

“I needed the change of scenery,” admitted Lee, and Goble needed her to team with standout Dylan Kim and return the Bears to relevance.

“Play here,” Goble said during his pitch, “and we’ll be really good again.”

And so of course it was Lee who helped send Baylor back to match play. With the team struggling to close out the round, Lee got up and down from behind the 18th green to give the team a two-shot cushion.

Now, they’re a scary No. 7 seed with nothing to lose against one of the pre-tournament favorites.

“I wouldn’t want to play us,” Goble said.

Arizona State claimed the third spot, thanks in large part to senior Monica Vaughn, who unknowingly captured the individual title after Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho collapsed on the 17th hole. The Sun Devils will face Florida in arguably the most intriguing matchup of the quarterfinals.

The Gators were the winningest team in college golf this season, but they have dealt with their share of drama this week. Marta Perez, who had paced Florida with an 11th-place finish at regionals, was hospitalized Thursday with a stomach virus and fever.

And so, the day before the first round, head coach Emily Glaser called sophomore Sam Wagner, who was en route to South Florida for a lesson, to tell her to book the next available flight to Chicago. Wagner didn’t arrive at the team hotel until 1:30 a.m. Friday, and she was at Rich Harvest Farms by 8:30.

Without seeing the course, Wagned approached the opening round like practice and shot 92 in the wind, rain and cold. The second round was canceled because of weather, but she returned Sunday and shot 75. On Monday, with her team needing a final-day rally, she shot 73 and helped the Gators climb seven spots on the leaderboard.

“You have to be pretty mentally tough to go turn around and do what she did,” Glaser said, “and she’s a tough kid.”

The other quarterfinal will feature Ohio State, which at No. 25 is the lowest-ranked team still remaining, against perennial power Southern Cal.

The teams can only hope that the match-play portion offers less of a challenge than the past few days.

Rich Harvest Farms’ penal design and miserable weather conditions led to some eye-opening numbers, as the course surrendered only one under-par team round and produced a combined score to par of 2,503 over.

Fortunately for Robertson, Goble and the rest of the coaches, the most stressful part of the week is over. 

All that matters now is securing three points.