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Women's tennis: Liang comes through in clutch for UNT at C-USA tourney

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

Minying Liang didn't think about all that hung in the balance late Thursday afternoon as she finished out her match in the Conference USA tournament.

The sophomore ignored the cheers from nearly 100 fans who crowded around the court and blocked out the nervous comments from her North Texas teammates.

Liang focused on the next shot, the next point and keeping her cool.

UNT is headed to Friday's quarterfinals as a result following a 4-3 thriller of a team win over Middle Tennessee at the Waranch Tennis Complex.

The Mean Green battled MTSU for four hours and were locked in a 3-all tie with only Liang's match at No. 5 singles against Marta Peris Herrero unfinished.

Tamuna Kutubidze, one of Liang's teammates, lay flat one her stomach on the adjacent court and prayed after Herrero took a 5-3 lead in the third set. UNT coach Sujay Lama stood just off the edge of the court, yelling encouragement. 

"I just tried to play my game and ignore everything else,"  Liang said. "Coach Lama kept telling me how hard I have been working and now was the time for it to pay off. I forgot about about the pressure and doubts."

Liang will have a 4-6, 6-0, 7-6 (7-4) win etched in her memory because of that approach. Herrero's last shot on match point never came close to clearing the net, setting off a celebration with UNT's players rushing the court.

The win sent the Mean Green, the fifth seed, to the quarterfinals to face fourth-seeded Old Dominion at 2 p.m. Friday. The Monarchs beat UAB 4-1 in their first-round match.

UNT wasn't supposed to have much of a problem with MTSU, the No. 12 seed, in its opening match of the 14-team tournament. 

The Blue Raiders exceeded expectations and gave the Mean Green everything they could handle.

"It was not the first round we expected, but it will be good for us," said Maria Kononova, UNT's top player. "The tougher the first round, the more prepared you are for the second one. We did a good job today. We should take this to [Friday] and make sure it doesn't happen again."

UNT got off to a solid start when Kononova and Kutubidze pulled out a tight match at No. 1 doubles. The pair beat Sarah Sediri and Luisa Zirilli 6-4 to give the Mean Green two wins in the three doubles matches and the doubles point.

Kutubidze won her match at No. 2 singles a short time later to give UNT a 2-0 lead before the tide turned. 

Middle Tennessee won two of the next three matches. The Blue Raiders picked up a third win to tie the score at 3 when Lidia Burrows rallied to beat Alexis Thoma. 

Thoma dominated the first set but gradually let the momentum she built slip away.  Burrows won the second set in a tiebreaker, then rolled in the final set to take a  1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 victory.

A crowd that was spread over six courts was consolidated to two and finally huddled around Court 5 after it became apparent that Burrows was about to finish off Thoma.

Liang knew it was all up to her at that point. The situation is one Lama tries to prepare his players to face.

"The last four weeks our thing was physical toughness, mental toughness and poise in adverse situations," Lama said. "Tennis is about landing balls under pressure. At the end, that is what it came down to."

Liang made those pressure shots. She trailed twice in the final game before coming back to force the tiebreaker. Herrero double-faulted after going up 15-0 and 30-15. 

Liang capitalized with a winner down the middle and a lob to win the game and force the tiebreaker. 

Kutubidze was confident Liang would come through at that point.

"She handled the pressure well and had the will to win that match," Kutubidze said. "She played for us today.

"We told her that we trust her."

Liang finished just 6-9 in singles as a freshman and battled injuries early this season before finding her groove at No. 5 singles late in the year. She came into the tournament having won three of her last four matches.

"She has worked so hard and had an up-and-down career," Lama said. "The last seven weeks she has been our MVP. It came down to who wanted it more. We refused to lose."

That approach helped Liang rally again after falling down 2-0 in the tiebreaker. She came back to even the score at 3 on a winner down the line, then won three straight points to close out the match.

Liang celebrated with her teammates before collapsing to the floor in tears inside UNT's tennis offices. 

"I just wanted to rest after that final point," Liang said. "I was so happy to clinch the match for us."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

North Texas 4, Middle Tennessee 3

1. Maria Kononova/Tamuna Kutubidze (UNT) defeat Sarah Sediri/Luisa Zirilli, 6-4
2. Lidia Burrows/Costanza Magazzini (MTSU) defeat Ivana Babic/Alexandra Heczey, 6-2
3. Alexis Thoma/Minying Liang (UNT) defeat Marta Peris Herrero/Josefina Zehnder, 6-1

1. Kononova (UNT) defeats Zehnder, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1
2. Kutubidze (UNT) defeats Magazzini, 6-3, 6-2
3. Burrows (MTSU) defeats Thoma, 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1
4. Zirilli (MTSU) defeats Alexandra Heczey, 6-2, 4-6, 6-3
5. Liang (UNT) defeats Herrero, 4-6, 6-0, 7-6 (7-4)
6. Sediri (MTSU) defeats Laura Arciniegas, 6-3, 6-2