Rutgers defeats in-state rival NJIT for second straight season

<p>Sophomore Chloe Lee emerged victorious in the closest contest of the day, defeating NJIT's Rafaella Sampaio in a nail-biting three-set match,&nbsp;4-6, 6-4, 10-7.</p>

Sophomore Chloe Lee emerged victorious in the closest contest of the day, defeating NJIT's Rafaella Sampaio in a nail-biting three-set match, 4-6, 6-4, 10-7.

Unlike most movie sequels, the Rutgers tennis team’s second all-time meeting with in-state rival NJIT was just as impressive as the first.

Entering the contest with a two-match winning streak, the Scarlet Knights (4-2) defeated the Highlanders (3-4) 7-0 on Thursday at the East Brunswick Racquet Club.

NJIT entered Thursday’s match after suffering a 0-7 setback against Cornell, but prior to that road loss, the Highlanders were winners of three of their last four bouts.

Last season, the Knights secured a similar 7-0 win over the Highlanders.

Rutgers has now won three matches in a row including victories against other respected foes, Seton Hall and Army, in the last two weeks.

“We had a good day and played strong, clean tennis,” said head coach Ben Bucca. “Our opponents showed some excellent shot making, but the difference was in our consistency and discipline and that won it for us today.”

The senior duo of Gina Li and Maraim Zein started off the day with a dominant 6-2 win against their first doubles opponents.

Junior Kesenija Tihomirova and sophomore Chloe Lee continued that success in the second doubles contest with a 6-2 triumph of their own.

Wrapping up, senior Lindsey Kayati and junior Farris Cunningham fended off their opponents in the number three spot to conclude the doubles sweep.

The Knights commanded in singles action as well by dictating the pace of play and controlling individual battles en route to cruising by with six straight victories.

Li won in a particularly striking manner, ending up on the right side of consecutive 6-1 sets.

“My opponent played a very strong game with a lot of quick line-drive shots,” Li said. “It really boiled down to me being able to adapt to her game and turning it into an advantage instead of a threat.”

From the ace or number one position, Li has attained three straight victories, including a 6-3, 6-0 decision over Seton Hall’s Luize Strike, who possessed an undefeated record as the reigning Big East Player of the Week entering the match.

In Rutgers’ six matches this season, Li and Tihomirova lead the squad with three singles wins each.

The key to the Latvia native’s success has been her determination and focus, keeping all distractions and pressures at bay during her matches.

“I always aim for two wins (doubles and singles),” Tihomirova said. “I try not to worry about who I’m playing and just perform to the level I know I’m capable of reaching.”

While Tihomirova, Li, and most of the other Knights coasted through the day, there was one real test.

The closest contest between Rutgers and the Highlanders came in the No. 2 singles position, as Lee scrapped her way into a third and deciding set.

After losing the first, 6-4, she rebounded with a vengeance with a convincing 6-4 victory of her own in the second set.

In the final clash, Lee produced a nail-biting 10-7 win to assure a singles and all-around sweep for the Knights.

“NJIT played hard and the score doesn’t reflect how close the match was,” Bucca said. “It really just came down to us playing our best tennis.”

NJIT was the first of five straight home matches for Rutgers as the Knights return to action on Sunday, when they will participate in their much-anticipated Big Ten Conference season debut against Maryland.

Last year when Rutgers visited College Park in their first ever Big Ten match, they lost 7-0.

This season, the Knights are playing more inspired and higher caliber tennis.

There’s also an improved air of confidence among the bunch and they are looking to give the Terrapins a run for their money this time around.

“Since we’re the underdogs, we can come out real loose and with nothing to lose,” Li said. “We really want to show them what we’re made of.”

For updates on the Rutgers tennis team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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