Arizona defeats Alabama in playoff to win NCAA Championship

Bruce Waterfield/Oklahoma State Athletics

Arizona defeats Alabama in playoff to win NCAA Championship

Women

Arizona defeats Alabama in playoff to win NCAA Championship

STILLWATER, Okla. – Arizona never seemed fazed by the long odds it faced at times at Karsten Creek Golf Club.

That’s what a rocky season will do for you. The Wildcats entered 2017-18 coming off a campaign in which they sputtered out at regionals in a 10th-place showing.

Earlier in the week at the 2018 NCAA Women’s Championship, head coach Lauren Ianello told Golfweek she could feel a lack of investment from a couple of players last season. Some didn’t even care they missed out on last year’s NCAA Championship.

There was also the fear of whether some team members would turn pro, a concern that proved correct when Krystal Quihuis did so after last fall.

Ahead of the spring, Ianello certainly didn’t believe a national title was likely.

“How far away did this feel six months ago?” Ianello said. “I’m not going to lie. At one moment, it felt impossible.”

It doesn’t feel that way any longer.

The Wildcats battled all Wednesday afternoon with top-ranked Alabama in the NCAA Championship final and came out on top in a tense showdown. The Crimson Tide took a 2-1 lead after the first three matches, but Arizona sophomore Sandra Nordaas defeated Angelica Moresco, 1 up, to make it 2-2.

Then, junior Haley Moore rolled in a 4-foot birdie putt on her first playoff hole, the par-5 18th, against Lakareber Abe in the anchor match to secure Arizona a 3-2 victory and its first national title in 18 years.

If only that turbulent final was the most difficult point of Arizona’s quest. The Wildcats nearly collapsed Monday on the final day of stroke play, falling from third at the day’s beginning to outside the top-eight cut to advance to match play as the action wound down.

That is until junior Bianca Pagdanganan found the par-5 18th in two and drained a curling 25-foot eagle putt to save the team’s title chances. That eagle got Arizona to 33 over and into a playoff with Baylor for the eighth and final spot in match play. The Wildcats won.

Great, next up was top-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals. The Bruins were well rested after cruising to match play earlier on Monday while the No. 8 seed was worn out from an interminable day.

Only, junior Gigi Stoll went out and toppled player-of-the-year candidate Lilia Vu, 2 up, in the opening match. Pagdanganan outlasted freshman of the year Patty Tavatanakit, 1 up, and Haley Moore’s 3-and-1 win over Claire Legaspi was the third point they needed to advance.

Still full of energy, somehow, the Wildcats simply dispatched Stanford, 4-1, in the semis. Then top-ranked Alabama fell the following day. Ianello was right, something like this from this group was impossible just six months ago.

The eighth-year head coach, who won a national title with Arizona as a player in 2000, felt her team underachieved in the fall and lacked the proper chemistry.

There was already one transfer (Pagdanganan, from Gonzaga) on the roster and Quihuis was soon gone. The addition of a midseason freshman in Yu-Sang Hou seemed it might only bring more complications.

So Ianello took the team on a retreat in January to a local Hilton in Tucson. A simple activity at the getaway stuck out. The coach commissioned 60-second speeches, an activity where she wrote down random topics on pieces of paper and whatever topic a player or coach picked up, they had to speak about for a full 60 seconds.

“It’s amazing how you can really see someone’s personality and if they can think on their toes by forcing them to speak for 60 seconds,” Ianello said.

Among the memories were Hou’s hysterical attempt to try to talk about cheesecake for her 60 seconds. Associate head coach Derek Radley’s topic was even worse: farting.

Ianello’s subject? Armpits.

“Here I am the coach, getting up there having to do a 60-second speech on the topic of armpits,” Ianello said, laughing.

The retreat also became the source of a team slogan for the spring. The group wished to come up with a phrase that showed it was united. So a mantra arose: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

“Those couple of days were amazing,” Nordaas said. “It was kind of like a switch.”

After a winless fall, Arizona earned two victories in the spring. A tie for third at Pac-12s was followed by a fourth at regionals to reach the NCAA Championship.

Ianello specifically noted the El Tigre Invitational win, pointing out the fact Pagdanganan forgot quickly about her disqualification due to an incorrect scorecard and still was so happy when the team triumphed.

Bianca’s dad, Sam, has not let her forget about that scorecard error, often snarkily messaging her before rounds since to not forget to sign her scorecard. Bianca laughs noting that wasn’t even the issue that got her disqualified.

The words Sam messages his daughter before and after rounds more often deal in support and motivation.

He sent a prayer to Arizona’s coaches prior to the final round of stroke play. The prayer called for courage, confidence, patience and to avoid complacency. Ianello and Pagdanganan were alone in one of the team’s two vans that morning heading to the course.

When they reached Karsten Creek and Ianello was unpacking the van, she asked her player if she’d gotten her dad’s message. When Pagdanganan said no, it led to an emotional moment.

“She started to tear up, she’s like, ‘He just sent me the best prayer ever,’ ” Pagdanganan said. “And then she read it to me, and then the waterworks came (from coach).”

It wasn’t the first time Ianello got emotional this week, as she teared up while giving a speech in a practice-round meeting about her pride in how this year’s group has come together.

It was a year ago the Wildcats failed at regionals and saw rival Arizona State win the national title. Ianello and players noted they were happy for a fellow Pac-12 team, but they didn’t deny it served as a motivator.

“It’s fun to take it back,” Nordaas said. “The trophy stays in Arizona.”

It’s a trophy Ianello couldn’t have fathomed those six months ago.

Now, the impossible is real.

“These ladies have joined forces, became good friends, had a goal and now they’ve accomplished it,” Ianello said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

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