FAYETTEVILLE — An emotional Shauna Taylor fell to her knees on the 18th green while hugging her Arkansas Razorbacks players at the Greystone Golf & Country Club on Sunday.
The No. 3 Razorbacks held on during a dramatic finish to defeat No. 10 South Carolina by a 3-2 count in the match play final to claim the program's first SEC women's golf championship.
The Razorbacks claimed victory over six rounds in five days at the Legacy Course in Hoover, Ala. in the first year of the match play format after three rounds of stroke play.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, finished stroke play as the No. 3 seed, then downed defending champion and No. 13 Florida 3-2 and No. 1 ranked Alabama 3-1-1 on Saturday before facing the top-seeded Gamecocks.
"It took everything we had," said Taylor who was fighting back tears as the Razorbacks celebrated around her. "We've gotten up the last three days at 4 in the morning to get ready to come to the golf course at 5 a.m. … Razorback Nation, this is for them. We're just so grateful for this opportunity."
Junior Kaylee Benton clinched the championship and the final point for the Razorbacks by leaving her 27-foot birdie putt two inches away from the cup on No. 18. South Carolina's Ainhoa Olarra, the SEC individual medalist, conceded the tap-in to give Benton a 2 up victory and give the Razorbacks the title.
"It was a tough match all day long," Benton said. "I knew I couldn't lose it on that hole … so if I could just give myself a look at birdie, then I knew I'd have it in the bag and I did. I just two putted it. It was pretty nice."
Benton and junior Maria Fassi won all three of their match-play pairings and they were joined by junior Dylan Kim with Sunday victories.
"I struggled a lot in stroke play, so to turn it around and really get one for my team the last three matches was really cool," said Benton.
Fassi, who lost the medalist playoff to Olarra in two extra holes on Friday, chipped in from about 35 feet on No. 1 on Sunday and led throughout to defeat Anita Uwadia 2 & 1 in the leadoff position.
"It's really hard to put into words what we just did out here," Fassi said. "We fought really hard. It was a really long week. We just stayed in it and it ended up going our way.
"Of course I wanted to win the stroke play part of the tournament, but I'm here for the team. It's just a bigger picture. … I stayed in it and I knew I had to come through for the team to achieve the goal that we had of winning the SEC championship. I knew I had to play my best and I did."
Taylor, who was part of Georgia's SEC championship teams in 1997, '98 and '99 during her All-American career, became the first person to win SEC titles as a player and coach.
"As a player, to win a championship was so much fun," Taylor said. "As I got into coaching 16 years ago, my dream has been to share that with my team. It's taken 16 long years, but it's been well worth the wait. I couldn't imagine doing it with any other group. I'm just so proud of them."
Benton lost the first two holes to Olarra but won Nos. 7 and 9 to pull back even. She took a 2-hole lead with birdies on the par 3 13th and the par 4 14th, then held on as Alarra made a charge on the closing holes.
The junior Kim got ahead of Lois Kaye Go with a birdie on No. 3 and went up two with another birdie on No. 7. After Go missed a 6-footer for birdie that would have won No. 17, Kim calmly tapped in from 3 feet to halve the hole and put Arkansas ahead 2-1.
At that point, Arkansas senior Alana Uriell was in position to win the championship with a birdie putt from within four feet on the par 5 No. 18 in her match against Ana Palaez that was all square. However, Palaez dropped in a knee-knocker for par, then Uriell pulled her short putt wide left to keep the match even through 18. Palaez escaped trouble on the first playoff hole by chipping close from the bunker to save par and won the match when Uriell missed another short putt.
That left only the Benton-Olarra match on the 18th green for the last bit of drama.
South Carolina's Marion Veyssere downed Arkansas junior Cara Gorlei 2 up in the second match of the day.
Gorlei went 1-1-1 in match play, while Kim and Uriell were each 1-2.
The Razorbacks will take the momentum from Hoover into the upcoming NCAA regionals, Fassi said.
"I think we're in great shape," Fassi said. "I truly believe we're one of the best teams in the nation. We just have to keep doing our thing, stay working hard, stay in our process and I think we're going to have a pretty good end of the year."