Lauren Stephenson, rest of Alabama's 'Big 3' lead Tide to NCAA women's final

Todd Bell/Alabama Athletics

Lauren Stephenson, rest of Alabama's 'Big 3' lead Tide to NCAA women's final

Women

Lauren Stephenson, rest of Alabama's 'Big 3' lead Tide to NCAA women's final

STILLWATER, Okla. – Lauren Stephenson did something this season that no women’s college golfer had ever done. Not Lorena Ochoa. Not Amanda Blumenherst. Not Leona Maguire.

Stephenson, a junior from Lexington, S.C., played 33 rounds of stroke play this season and posted a 69.76 stroke average, the first sub-70 scoring average in NCAA Division I women’s golf history.

“It makes me feel like my hard work has paid off,” said Stephenson, who won twice and didn’t finish worse than T-9 in 11 tournaments. She shot 1-under 287 to tie for seventh at the NCAA Women’s Championship this week at Karsten Creek and break Lorena Ochoa’s national scoring record. (Ochoa average 70.13 stroke per round in 30 rounds for Arizona in 2001-02.)

“I couldn’t have imagined that I would put myself in contention pretty much every week.”

And it is partly because of Stephenson that Alabama was in contention all season, finishing no worse than third in any event. The Tide also will contend for an NCAA title Wednesday after winning matches over Kent State, 4-1, and USC, 3-1-1, on Tuesday at Karsten Creek.

“She’s a great player,” Alabama head coach Mic Potter said of Stephenson, who made her biggest weakness (putting) one of her biggest strengths last summer. “… And she’s become a really good putter, and I have a lot of confidence in her to make important putts. It’s hard to average two-and-a-half (shots) under par. We want her going against their best player because she’s hard to beat.”

Stephenson was up to the challenge Tuesday, first downing Kent State’s Pimnipa Panthong, 3 and 2, in the quarterfinals and adding a 2-and-1 victory over USC’s Jennifer Chang in the semifinals. In both instances she led off and got the first point on the board for Alabama.

But she wasn’t the only Crimson Tide player to go 2-0 on Tuesday. No, Potter has himself an embarrassment of riches in Tuscaloosa. Alabama has not one but three players who could play No. 1 for many Division I teams.

Sophomore Kristen Gillman, who will join Stephenson and junior Cheyenne Knight as first-team All-Americans this season, was T-7 in stroke play this week, her fifth top-10 of the season. She beat Kent State’s Michaela Finn, 2 and 1, in the quarterfinals before topping USC’s Amelia Garvey, 3 and 1.

Knight, a three-time first-team All-American who will turn pro after this season, posted a 4-and-3 victory over Kent State’s Kory Nielsen before earning the clinching point to send the Tide to the final by beating USC’s Allisen Corpuz, 2 and 1.

Knight delivered the moment of the day during her semifinal match. Knight, who didn’t make a bogey in her afternoon match, nearly had one at the par-4 12th, hitting her drive into the trees and then, after a nice break, leaving her wedge shot some 70 feet short of the hole. With Corpuz in tight for a gimme birdie, Knight knew she needed to make to keep her 2-up lead.

She walked off the yardage – 23 paces – and quickly prepared to putt. The ball started off going right before curling back to the left and right into the hole.

“Unbelievable,” Knight said. “You kind of joke around practicing with those. When I do a speed drill the farthest I go is 60 feet. It was lucky, but it was great.”

Alabama’s “Big 3” of Stephenson, Gillman and Knight has been equally as great this week. None of them finished worse than T-7 in stroke play while Knight nearly won the individual title before finishing fourth. They’ve also combined to go 6-0 in match play, combining to play 99 holes, winning 32 of them and losing just 15. As a unit, they’ve spent just two holes trailing.

“This is a very confident group,” Potter said.

Added Knight: “Honestly if you would’ve told me that we’d be in this moment right now, I believed that we could, but just the feeling is so surreal.”

A special close to a special season awaits.

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