Tennessee moves to quarterfinals
Vols set for third matchup with SEC foe Georgia in next round
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- After losing the doubles point, the Tennessee Volunteers faced a now-or-never moment in their third-round match Thursday at the NCAA Tennis Championships.
The Vols stepped out the locker room knowing they had to win four singles matches and quickly took command across the courts on their way to a 4-2 victory against California at the Taube Family Tennis Stadium to advance to the quarterfinals.
With the Vols holding a 3-2 lead, sophomore Rhyne Williams delivered the final point, defeating No. 64 Carlos Cueto 7-6 (5), 6-3 on court 2 to stay perfect in the NCAA Championships in his career.
"This group has been through a lot together," said senior Boris Conkic, who contributed a straight-set win on court 4. "If we are not motivated and if we don't want to do it right now, then we will never do it. This is what we've been practicing really hard for this semester. We all knew that we had to go out and be ready to play."
The Vols (24-4) now face a familiar foe, sixth-ranked Georgia, in Saturday's quarterfinals. Tennessee has defeated the Bulldogs twice this season, including a 4-3 victory at Georgia in the regular-season finale to secure a share of the SEC title.
Thursday's doubles matches opened quickly in the Vols' favor with Williams and Tennys Sandgren jumping out to an 8-1 victory on court 2, but California's Carlos Cueto and Jonathan Dahan defeated Jones and senior Matteo Fago 8-5 on court 3 to even the point.
Everything came down to court 1, where California's Nick Andrews and Chistoffer Kongisfeldt rallied to beat top-ranked Conkic and senior John-Patrick Smith in a tiebreaker 9-8 (4) to take a 1-0 lead in the match.
While doubles is only worth one point in a dual match, winning doubles can -- and often does -- spell victory because it forces the losing team to take four of six singles points. The Vols entered the NCAA Championships just 1-3 in matches when they lost the doubles point.
On Thursday, however, the Vols almost immediately seized momentum in singles, taking five of six first sets from California.
"You've got to play to win in this tournament, and I think a little bit of nerves came into it," Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "You know, big stage, even though we've been here before, you still have to manage those nerves and I don't think we did a great job of doing that in the doubles.
"I give Cal credit for winning the doubles point. They played to win, and in singles, we played to win."
Smith was first off the court with a 6-3, 6-1 victory against 20th-ranked Pedro Zerbini to tie the match 1-1. The win was Smith's 40th of the season and milestone 150th of his career.
Not long after Smith's victory, the pieces continued to fall in place for Tennessee in the lower half of the lineup.
Jones was down 2-5 in the first set but stormed back to beat Riki McLachlan 7-6 (5), 6-0 to give the Vols the 2-1 lead on court 4. Conkic put the Vols one point away from clinching when he earned a 6-2, 6-2 victory against Christoffer Kongisfeldt on court 4.
Fago lost to Bozhidar Katsarov 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 in the third set on court 5 to make the score 3-2, leaving Williams and Sandgren the last two Vols on court.
Williams and Sandgren, the Vols' star sophomores, both won their first sets in tiebreakers, with Sandgren taking his 10-8. Sandgren was on serve in the second set when Williams clinched the match against Cueto to end the match.