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Rain delay, darkness add to bizarre week at NCAAs

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – To Arizona State coach Missy Farr-Kaye, there was no decision to make.

Her star player, Monica Vaughn, had been on her feet for 18 hours. Vaughn was emotionally and physically spent after winning the NCAA individual title a day earlier. She had squandered a 2-up lead and was now 1 down on the final hole. Her team was on the verge of being eliminated. The big hitter had about 230 yards to the hole, from a wet lie, and reading the green would have been a challenge.

“This is an important shot,” Farr-Kaye told Vaughn. “We’re not out of it. It’s not over. It may seem like a long shot, but we’re still in it.”

And so Vaughn marked her ball and called it a day, leaving the NCAA Women’s Championship with some unfinished business when play resumes at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday (coverage will be live on Golf Channel).

When play was suspended because of darkness at Rich Harvest Farms, players had an opportunity to finish the hole they were on if the decision was unanimous.

Vaughn’s opponent, Stanford’s Albane Valenzuela, wanted to continue. Of course she did. After a two-hour, 20-minute weather delay, the Swiss freshman birdied three of her next four holes to flip the match and head to the par-5 finishing hole with a 1-up lead and an opportunity to earn the decisive third point for Stanford.

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“It’s match play,” Valenzuela said. “I would have probably done the same thing. It doesn’t matter. I’ll come back tomorrow.”

If Valenzuela can halve the 18th hole, she will send the Cardinal to their third consecutive NCAA finals. If Vaughn completes the comeback and wins in extra holes, the match will come down to Stanford’s Madeline Chou and Arizona State’s Linnea Strom, who are now all square with two holes to play after Strom sank a 12-footer for par in near-darkness.

“This is a marathon,” Farr-Kaye said. “This is a grueling week.”

The other semifinal participants have even more work to do.

Southern Cal holds a 4-1 lead over top-seeded Northwestern as they move through the back nine. Northwestern’s Sarah Cho has a 1-up lead with three to play in the opening match, and the Wildcats trail by a one-hole margin in three of the other four matches.

“It looks like a lot of red on the board,” Northwestern coach Emily Fletcher said, “but one hole, in a matter of 15 minutes, it can flip. I’m excited to get back out and have a go at this.”

The NCAA has already needed to make some tough calls this week, starting with the cancellation of the second round because of weather. On Tuesday, officials decided to resume the semifinals after more than a two-hour delay, knowing that play would carry over into Wednesday morning.

Even more surprising to many coaches was the move to allow players only 10 minutes to warm up after sitting around for two hours and playing in cold, wet conditions. In many cases, players needed to choose whether to stretch, hit balls or stroke a few putts

That didn’t sit well with USC coach Andrea Gaston.

“They need to stretch. They need to warm up,” she said. “You’re not going to tell a tennis player who has been sitting for two hours, ‘Hey, you’ve got 10 minutes to warm up.’ They might pull a muscle.

“Our sport is a lot more athletic now. A certain amount of consideration needs to be given to our players so no one gets hurt.”

And so the question: Why not just push the action into Wednesday morning? After all, the championship match isn’t scheduled to begin until 3:10 p.m. ET, so there would have been ample time to finish the semifinals in the morning and still allow players to rest before the finals.

“We’re fairly certain we’re going to get rain again [Wednesday],” said NCAA women’s chair Jim Fee, “so we wanted to make sure we’re doing what we can to get the matches in.”

No coach argued with that, but there is the potential now for a slight competitive imbalance, with the Stanford-Arizona State winner likely to play fewer holes Wednesday than the winner of the USC-Northwestern match.

“Might be a small factor there,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said.

And looking ahead, coaches are already unsure how they will handle the three- or four-hour break in between matches, since it’s likely not enough time to head back to the team hotel about 25 minutes away.

“That could be kind of funny,” Walker said.

Funny, yes, but also a fitting end to a bizarre championship week.