Alabama's double-digit lead dwindled on the back nine, and the Crimson Tide finished with a two-stroke lead over Southern California on Thursday after the third round of the NCAA Division I women's championship.
Oklahoma's Chirapat Jao-Javanil shot a 2-under 70 for a share of the individual lead with Arizona State's Giulia Molinaro at 4-under 212. Molinaro had a 72 on a day where only three players shot under par.
The Crimson Tide entered the third round with an 11-stroke lead, and that grew to 15 strokes with Alabama's No. 5 seeded player, Courtney McKim, in the fairway on No. 17. With hard greens, stiff wind and tough pin placements at Vanderbilt Legends Club's North Course, Alabama's top four players combined for three double bogeys and nine bogeys on the back nine.
Alabama coach Mic Potter, a sentimental favorite to win his first national title, said wind was a major factor drying out the greens. It didn't help Brooke Pancake, the individual leader after the second round, when she hit into the water on No. 16. Teammates Jennifer Kirby and Hannah Collier also hit into the water on the hole.
"We had three really good players knock the ball in the water, and I have no answer," Potter said. "You can't hit it here, and we hit it."
Alabama finished the round at 18-over 306 and had a 13-over 877 total. Southern California shot a 6-over 294. Purdue (295), South Carolina (300) and Virginia (301) were tied at 883.
Potter said the best part is Alabama still has a lead going into the final round, something he would've taken coming into the tournament.
"I still would like to have an 11-shot lead, or a 20," he said. "But yeah, I mean nothing to do but go play well now. If you don't, teams right behind us are really good, and they're not going to lay down or let us play mediocre. We've got to take control and worry about ourselves and do what we can to control our destiny."
Southern Cal started the round at 9 over and 14 strokes behind Alabama. The Trojans, who won national titles in 2003 and 2008, got the benefit of teeing off on No. 10 and finished on the front nine, which has played the easiest this week. They capped their round with four birdies on the par-5 ninth, finishing as Alabama managed only one birdie on the par-5 18th a few yards away.
Trojans coach Andrea Gaston didn't know how much ground her team had made up until she talked with reporters. She said her team tried to stay patient and didn't look at scores through the round.
"Having such a big lead that Alabama had we knew we had to make up some ground," Gaston said. "I didn't think we'd make up as much. Thankfully, we hung in there. One of the things in a national championship you're going to have one kind of bad day. You just have to minimize the mistakes and hope it doesn't go too bad. ... Given the conditions today, I feel like we played a great round as difficult as it played."
Similar conditions are expected Friday, and Gaston said that means any team getting to finish on the front nine could have a chance to make a run similar to Southern Cal's.
"It's kind of up for grabs really," Gaston said.
The Crimson Tide's round turned worse when Pancake, a senior and a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team, lost her lead with consecutive double bogeys. She was 7 under with a three-stroke lead after a birdie on No. 11. But she four-putted from 25 feet on the par-4 15th, then hit into the water left of the green on the par-3 16th.
She finished with a 75 to drop into a tie for third at 3 under.
"I made two pretty careless mistakes," Pancake said. "Definitely killed me. I guess I can't ponder on those and let it change my mind set for tomorrow. I have two good rounds that have put me in the position I'm in. Hopefully, I can get another one tomorrow and finish off well."
Pancake's finish left Jao-Javanil tied with Molinaro atop the leaderboard with both thinking they simply put themselves in good position for the final round. Jao-Javanil took advantage of smoother greens and less wind teeing off in the morning.
"I think I hit it pretty close today and I made a few puts and a lot of pars, so I think that really helped," said Jao-Javanil, who had four birdies and two bogeys.
Molinaro had two birdies and a double bogey, and the Arizona State senior born in Italy said she didn't think she could have scored any better than she did in the conditions. She spoke to reporters when she thought she was just behind Pancake in the standings.
"I don't have the pressure of being the leader," Molinaro said. "Still do have pressure, but not as much."
Just ask Alabama how quickly that can change.
BREAKING: Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Gang of Eight Immigration Reform Bill | Daniel Doherty