ATHENS, Ga. — Surely, 2,245 miles is a long way to go to play a tennis with a buddy who lives just 13 miles away, but that will happen on Monday at the NCAA tennis championships — twice.
Top-ranked USC and No. 4 UCLA — which gave the three-time defending national champion Trojans their only loss this season — each won quarterfinal matches on Sunday and their rewards will be a fourth meeting with each other. Ditto the USC and UCLA women, who will also square off in an “I Love L.A.” semifinal on Monday.
Jeez, don’t the Bruins get tired of seeing the Trojans?
“Well, yes, especially when you’re in the NCAA Championships,” UCLA coach Billy Martin said after the Bruins beat No. 5 Ohio State 4-2. “My next door neighbor is a Trojan. We give each other so much grief no matter what sport it is.
“You live among each other all the time. You see them driving around with their Trojan license plates or their Bruins license plates, wearing their gear. It’s just like you’re inundated with each other in our city.”
UCLA got a jump on Ohio State in unexpected fashion Sunday at the Dan McGill Complex — by winning the doubles point.
The Bruins dropped the doubles point Friday before beating Ole Miss 4-1 in the round of 16, but Adrien Puget and Alex Brigham made a big turnaround Sunday on the No. 1 doubles court.
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They lost 8-5 Friday, but against the No. 1-ranked doubles team in the land they won 8-6 against OSU’s Chase Buchanan and Blaz Rola to swing the doubles point after the Buckeyes and Bruins split on courts 2 and 3.
Puget and Brigham are No. 44, but that’s misleading because Parker didn’t pair them together until about a month ago even though they played well together last season.
“We had 13 or 14 break points in doubles in five or six games at 1 and 2 doubles and we didn’t get a break the whole day at 1 and 2 doubles,” Ohio State coach Ty Tucker said. “At No. 1 doubles we had a triple break point, and they came up with the goods. At 5-5, we had a break and Puget came up with three un-returnable serves.
“We thought if we could get the doubles point, we would be the favorites to win that match to be honest.”
Buchanan won 6-3, 6-3 against Clay Thompson at No. 1 singles, and Connor Smith won 6-2, 6-2 at No. 6 singles to put the Buckeyes ahead 2-1.
“Winning the doubles point was a huge motivator for our team,” UCLA’s Brigham said. “I feel it made everyone believe that we can achieve anything and overcome any hurdle.”
From there, it was all UCLA with Puget closing out the match despite minor cramping.
Facing a last-minute roster substitution in Ohio State’s Hunter Callahan at No. 5 singles. Puget won his 24th consecutive match, 6-3, 7-6 (0).
On Monday, it’s back to the Trojans.
USC trounced UCLA 6-1 in a non-conference match Feb. 29. The Trojans swept the doubles matches, and Puget was the only Bruin to notch a win.
The score was evened in the final regular season conference match, when UCLA again lost the doubles point before winning four singles matches on April 20 at USC. Puget clinched it with a 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-2 win against Yannic Hanfmann at No. 5 singles.
That gave the Bruins the Pac-12 regular season championship, but the Trojans won the conference title by beating UCLA 4-2 on April 28 in the Pac-12 tournament.
“Maybe they let up, let down their guard a little bit,” Martin said. “They win the doubles point, and Stevie [Johnson] is almost a lock for them at No. 1. We just kept fighting, and got ourselves in position. Whether they got a little tight, or tentative, probably. Sports, any given day you get a little lucky and rise to the occasion and anything can happen.”
Johnson won his 64th consecutive match Sunday when he beat Duke’s Henrique Cunha 6-4, 6-0 at No. 1 singles, but he and the Trojans (31-1) were not available to comment on meeting UCLA (26-3) again because their 4-1 victory against the Blue Devils was over so much quicker than the UCLA-Ohio State match.
By the time the Bruins won, the Trojans were gone.
“I hope we make them a better team, and I know they make us a better team,” UCLA’s Martin said of USC. “They’re fun matches. Win or lose, you know you’re in a battle. I love the competition, and I know they do, too.”
“I did my graduate school [at USC] … and had a father-in-law who was a professor there for four years so nobody talks bad about the Trojans too much in my family.”