No. 36 FIU women’s tennis fell to No. 18 Auburn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in a hotly contested 4-3 match on May 5, 2023, at the Neil Schiff Tennis Center in Coral Gables, Florida.
The Panthers had a promising start over the favored Tigers, taking the first doubles match of the game behind a strong performance from junior Salma Loudili and freshman Katerina Mandelikova, winning 6-3 at the No. 3 spot.
After freshman Ekaterina Khairutdinova and graduate Kamila Umarova failed to complete their 4-1 rally, FIU snatched the doubles point for good with a victory by freshman Oyinlomo Quadre and sophomore Yasmine Kabbaj, 6-3.
But the 1-0 lead for the Panthers was short-lived as Auburn fired off three straight singles wins over Umarova, Kabbaj and Loudili to jump to a 3-1 advantage.
FIU was on the brink of elimination and would need to be perfect to come back.
Mandelikova kept the Panthers alive with a win over freshman Kaitlyn Carnicella, 7-6 (2), 6-3.
Soon after, Quadre, the Conference USA Freshman and Player of the Year, recorded the highest-ranked singles victory of her career, putting away No. 23 senior Carolyn Ansari to knot the match up 3-3, making it anyone’s game.
The fate of this one would be decided on Court No. 3.
Khairutdinova dropped the first set against freshman DJ Bennett, 3-6, but confidently bounced back in the second set, 6-2.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, Khairutdinova couldn’t get it done in the third set, as Bennett would build a 5-3 lead and ultimately take the game for the Tigers, advancing the team into the second round.
Coach Katarina Petrovic believes that one factor in particular gave the Tigers a distinct advantage over the Panthers in this first-round matchup.
“I would say lack of experience was the deciding point,” said Petrovic. “This is the first time that we do have a three-freshman lineup. We had a chance, we won the double points and again, in my opinion, we fought until the very last point.”
Despite the loss, Petrovic expressed full faith in her core of freshmen players to come back stronger next year.
“See I believe the team was really giving 100% effort… Two out of three freshmen won and one freshman played a deciding match. So I would say that’s a big improvement and they’ll be ready for next year.”
The Panthers end their season with an 18-5 record, their best since 2017. This run marks the team’s 12th tournament appearance and third straight in three years.
Follow Brian Olmo on Twitter at @Brian_Olmo11