Alford fights through pain to the finish
Despite noteworthy effort, Gators fall 4-1 in Round of 16
ATHENS, Ga. – We've reached the point where any meeting on a field of play between Florida and Ohio State seems uniquely interesting, but the Buckeyes would probably use the word, “torturous,” in describing matters. They've been whipped a bunch.
When No. 5 OSU beat No. 12 Florida Gators 4-1 Friday in the Round of 16 of the NCAA men's tennis tournament it was a nice reversal of recent postseason fortunes for the Buckeyes vs. Florida, but this one was uncomfortable.
The clinching match came at No. 6 singles in a meeting of Tampa natives where Florida's Michael Alford was rendered lame to where he could barely move. Ohio State's Connor Smith beat him 5-7, 6-1, 6-0 and won every point in the final set.
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OSU coach Ty Tucker called that, “perhaps the first golden set in the NCAAs,” but there would have to be a couple asterisks attached. Alford was helpless for the final set and a half even after taking a medical timeout in the second. He served at about 40 or 50 mph, and received a game penalty between the final sets for taking so long to get ready.
Alford reached for his towel after almost every point, and the match became such torture to watch that fans from both schools and those unaffiliated alongside the McWhorter Courts at Georgia grew deathly quiet for the final 30 or 40 minutes.
“It looked brutal . . . He was obviously hurting. I feel bad for him,” said Smith, who moved to 25-5 in dual meets after going 11-12 last season before transferring from Florida State. “You don't want to win that way.”
After Ohio State's Chase Buchanan beat Bob van Overbeek 6-3, 6-3 at No. 1 singles to give the Buckeyes (34-3) a 3-1 lead, why did Alford keep playing rather than retire?
The Gators (16-10) then needed a win on all remaining courts and there had been no evidence for the previous 25 minutes or so that Alford could walk to his bench in less than 30 seconds time, let alone beat anyone. He wasn't available for interviews so Florida coach Andy Jackson explained:
“You don't want to put a player in a dangerous situation so obviously we didn't think it was a dangerous situation although it may have looked like a hopeless situation. But strange things happen in sports. Maybe Connor starts having physical problems. Maybe he turns an ankle. Maybe you get your second wind.
“I've seen many tennis matches look like the other guy is dead in the water and then it changes; that's why he stays out there.”
Already battling left ankle and knee injuries which limited his recent training, Alford's stamina became an issue and he ended up stiff-legged with cramps.
OSU might have won even without Smith's result. They split sets at No. 3 singles and were close to splitting at No. 4 when the match ended. Whatever the case, they needed a win to advance to Sunday's quarterfinals against No. 4 UCLA (25-3).
And perhaps the Buckeyes needed a win for sake of institutional sanity.
Florida pounded Ohio State in the football national championship game in Jan. 2007, beat the Buckeyes in the basketball title game a few months later, and ground down OSU in the Gator Bowl in January.
The OSU men's basketball team pounded Florida in a few recent regular season games, including one two years ago in Gainesville, but those results weren't on anybody's mind.
Smith and Buchanan were wearing, “Ohio State Football,” T-shirts when they met the media, and their coach shed some light.
“I think any time you play a powerhouse like Florida, or Michigan or USC or Notre Dame ... you want to show what you have,” Tucker said. “I think absolutely the guys talk about it; four or five days talking about Florida and what an honor it is and a chance and an opportunity to play a team that we've faced.
“I think we played them in women's basketball ... in the first round of the NCAA tournament and lost to Florida, and ... we lost 5-4 in the semifinals of the conference in women's lacrosse. Everybody knows the scores.”
Alford (12-2) made an effort in the first couple games after his medical timeout when trailing 3-1 in the second set. He struggled moving to his right in particular, and after a couple games of that he barely moved any direction at all.
“[Alford] had to take an injury timeout and wasn't able to compete his best from there on out,” Tucker said. “It obviously felt pretty good [to win], but you had to feel for the kid who was in some pain. I give a lot of credit to Mike Alford. He kept playing.”