By Cameron Jourdan
Special to The Tuscaloosa News
STILLWATER, Okla. – Lakareber Abe’s putt fell below the hole, her teammates behind her gasping and the red-clad fans in the crowd sighing.
Minutes earlier she almost chipped-in from a greenside bunker for an eagle. The ball narrowly skirted past the hole, and after her missed birdie putt, Arizona’s Haley Moore knocked in her 3-foot birdie attempt to clinch the Wildcats’ third women’s golf national title.
Alabama fell 3-2 to Arizona in the championship match of the NCAA Championships on Wednesday at Karsten Creek Golf Club. The top-ranked Crimson Tide struggled against the Wildcats, who became the first No. 8 seed to advance past the quarterfinal round in match play.
Abe sent the day’s final match into a playoff after squaring her match with Moore on No. 18. Abe knocked her second shot on the par-5 hole within 12 feet of the hole and made birdie to force the playoff.
Lauren Stephenson began the day for Alabama, and she garnered a lead after the first hole but struggled when she made the turn.
Stephenson trailed for the first time in match play after a double-bogey on the par-4 No. 4 hole, but quickly made the match all square after her par on No. 7.
The putts stopped falling on No. 10 and Arizona’s Yu-Sang Hou caught fire, winning four straight holes to take control. Every putt went her way, Hou often fist-pumping whenever the ball rattled at the bottom of the cup.
Hou defeated Stevenson 4-and-3, giving Arizona an early 1-0 advantage.
“She was just a little off for some reason,” Alabama coach Mic Potter said of Stephenson. “She wasn’t as precise with her driver, and that’s tough out here.”
The Women’s Golf Coaches Association announced Wednesday before the start of the match that Stephenson won the Golfstat Cup, given to the collegiate player with the lowest stroke average.
Stephenson set a school record with her 69.76 stroke average while tallying two wins and 11 top-10 finishes in her 11 starts.
Stephenson, a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup and Palmer Cup teams, received All-American honors along with junior Cheyenne Knight and sophomore Kristen Gillman. Stephenson recorded 19 rounds in the 60s and 26 rounds of par or better in 33 rounds played this season, both of which lead the team.
Gillman didn’t struggle in her match. A sophomore, she won the lead with a birdie on the first hole and never looked back. She made the turn 3-up and made another birdie at No. 10 to take a four-hole advantage.
Gillman’s won her match on No. 15, as well, defeating Arizona’s Gigi Stoll 4-and-3 to give Alabama its first point.
Shortly after, Cheyenne Knight, who was Alabama’s most consistent player throughout the week, added another point with her 4-and-2 victory against Bianca Pagdanganan. Knight was down 1 when she took the No. 10 tee, but the shots began to fall. She won three consecutive holes to get a 2-up lead heading to No. 13.
Pagdanganan made a 25-foot eagle putt on Arizona’s final hole Monday to put them in a playoff with Baylor for the final match play spot. After defeating the Bears, Arizona knocked off top-seeded UCLA and Stanford to advance to the match play final.
The Wildcats tallied their second point when Sandra Nordaas defeated Crimson Tide freshman Angelica Moresco 1-up. Moresco was down 2 heading to 17, but a birdie on this week’s toughest hole helped give her one last shot, but she was unable to square the match.
“We’ve all gotta realize if you play competitive golf at this level, you’re going to lose sometimes,” Potter said. “Tiger (Woods) won under 25 percent of the time when he was at his peak, so you just don’t win all the time. (Arizona) got the job done today.”