Kentucky holds off Auburn
Musialek fights off cramps, Tigers' Stamchev to clinch victory
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- With the score tied 3-3 and the final singles match in a decisive third set, Kentucky junior Alex Musialek won three consecutive games to clinch No. 11 Kentucky's 4-3 victory against No. 20 Auburn in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Linder Stadium at the Ring Tennis Center in Gainesville, Fla., on Friday.
Musialek, who is ranked 52nd in the nation in singles, and Auburn’s No. 118 Alexander Stamchev, were both battling fatigue and cramps in the final set after both had already used their injury timeout. After Musialek and Stamchev each held serve to start the third set, Musialek got an early break to open up a 3-1 lead but Stamchev fought back, holding serve and then breaking Musialek to tie the set 3-3.
Stamchev would immediately use a medical timeout after the break, as did Musialek, allowing trainers from both teams to come onto the court to apply treatment as both players were cramping. When play resumed, Musialek earned one of the biggest games of the season, breaking Stamchev to go up 4-3. With both players continuing to cramp and barley able to move back and forth on the court, Musialek was able to hold serve to go up 5-3 and then break Stamchev again at deuce to claim the match and give UK the win.
“Musialek has been in that situation for us before, cramping with a chance to win the match,” UK head coach Dennis Emery said. “I'm proud of how he fought hard to get the win. I don’t know if he has ever been in a situation where both he and his opponent both were cramping. At that point, it was a battle of will and character and he showed a lot of both today.”
The Kentucky junior is now 10-2 against SEC competition this spring and an impressive 25-14 overall this year. The win against a ranked opponent was his 10th of the season and his third consecutive singles victory.
“He played both crafty and smart the entire match and had a lot of heart,” Emery said. “He could have easily just gone away when they tied it 3-3 in the third, but he fought through to get a break and won three straight games to win it after the injury timeout.”
With the win, Kentucky (25-7) ties a school record for wins in a single season, which was set by last year’s team that went 25-9. The Wildcats have now set or tied a school record for wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the 1974-75 seasons. The 1974 team set a school record for wins with 22 before the 1975 team tied that record with 22.
“I continue to be impressed with the way our team shows the determination to fight back,” Emery said. “They have character and play together and do a lot of the things that championship teams do in terms of competing and playing tough when behind.”
The win moves Kentucky to 16-7 against ranked foes this season, including a stretch of four consecutive wins against ranked teams. The win also avenges one of UK’s three SEC losses in the regular season when it fell to the Tigers 4-1 in Auburn on March 26.
“We knew this was going to be a great match because we felt our talent level was even to Auburn’s,” Emery said. “They have such a great team and played so well when they beat us down at their place. We knew that we were going to have to play well today and we felt the neutral court would help. We are happy with the win and now we have to make sure we rest up for tomorrow.”
Lost in the match because of the incredible ending at No. 2 singles was the play of Kentucky seniors Brad Cox and No. 83 Alberto Gonzalez, who both earned key singles wins for UK. Cox started the scoring for Kentucky at No. 3 singles, posting an impressive straight-sets victory over Tim Hewitt 6-4, 7-5 to tie the match at 1-1. Minutes later, Gonzalez also scored a straight-sets win by breaking Dan Cochrane for the 6-4, 6-4 win at No. 4 singles to give UK a 2-1 lead in the match.
“Our seniors came through for us today getting two big singles wins,” Emery said. “Brad has really picked it up the last five matches and has won some big matches for us recently. I thought that he played tremendous today. Alberto was also good, fighting through some breaks to get a big-time win against a good player.”
After Auburn grabbed a point at No. 1 singles to tie the match 2-2, Kentucky grabbed the lead when freshman Tom Jomby won at No. 6 singles. The Kentucky freshman took the first set 6-4 and was up a break a majority of the second set before Rafael Rondino earned a break and held serve to the tie the set 5-5. Rondino would hold serve again to force a tiebreaker before Jomby put the match out of reach in the tiebreaker for the 6-4, 7-6 (4) win.
“Jomby defeated a guy that beat him earlier this year and he showed great toughness today to earn that win,” Emery said. “Being a freshman, he did a great job of keeping his composure when Rondino tied the set and forced a tiebreaker there in the second. It was a good win for Tom today and I am proud of how he answered there in the tiebreaker.”
Auburn would tie the match 3-3, earning a singles victory at No. 5 before Musialek would finish the match with his three-set thriller.
The Tigers won the first point of the match by claiming the doubles point. Kentucky began doubles by getting a dominating 8-5 win from Gonzalez and freshman Alejandro Gomez at No. 3 doubles over Rondino and Lucas Lopasso. UK dropped doubles matches on courts No. 1 and No. 2.
“I thought we had the doubles point won, with one match won and up a break in another,” Emery said. “But Auburn played great to take the lead away and win the point. They just elevated their game and raised the level of their game to take it away from us. At that point we knew it would be a tough match going forward.”