Florida, Texas, Baylor, Tennessee advance to 2021 NCAA men's semifinals
Each of the NCAA tournament's top four seeds advanced on men's quarterfinal day at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla., with No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Tennessee and No. 4 Texas all living up to their billing.
The Gators closed out Thursday's play after midnight with a 4-1 decision over Texas A&M, matching the scoreline of Tennessee's victory over Georgia and Baylor's over TCU. In the day's closest contest, defending champions Texas won their 10th 4-3 match of the season, and their second of the tournament, to escape USC.
Friday's semifinals will see Florida take on Texas in a 2019 NCAA semifinal rematch, after Baylor meets Tennessee. The eventual NCAA champion will be required to win three matches in three days, with the final set for Saturday.
Gators rely on captains, thwart A&M with singles sweep
The singles lineup is the strength of this Florida team, so there was no panic when the Gators failed to convert a match point at No. 1 doubles on the way to surrendering the opening point. For the third time in Friday's four dual matches, the doubles point came down to a tiebreak. In this SEC semifinal rematch, the ITA's No. 8-ranked team of Bjorn Thomson and Carlos Aguilar pumped the Aggies full of belief when an overhead put them on the board with an 8-6 tiebreak win.
“We said before the match, ‘This [doubles] is a point they have to win. This is a point we'd like to win. Let’s go get it. Play freely and go after it,'" Florida head coach Bryan Shelton said post-match. "Unfortunately it didn't bounce our way, but we've been resilient all year. We've lost a doubles points throughout the season. We lost the doubles point last time we played Texas A&M at the SEC tournament, and we turned that match around and won it. So back to business, business as usual.”
The Gators have been nearly unbeatable in the bottom half of the singles lineup all season, and their depth shined through on the big stage when Blaise Bicknell and Ben Shelton scored convicing, straight-sets wins at the No. 4 and 5 spots to put Florida ahead, 2-1, on the overall score. But three of the other four courts needed tiebreaks to decide the opening sets as A&M threatened to upset the local favorites by pulling ahead on Courts 1 and 6.
Junior captain Sam Riffice won a 7-5 tiebreak on Court 2 to cap off an opening set that went entirely on serve, then managed to break twice in the second to put his team in command. Orlando resident Riffice, who reached the 2019 NCAA singles semifinals at the Campus, was one of five Gators to win their second set in singles. His 7-6, 6-4 victory put the top seeds one win away from the semis.
With A&M needing to win out to advance, all three remaining matches headed to a third set. On Court 1, senior captain Duarte Vale was making amends for his earlier loss at No. 1 doubles with a spirited fightback against Valentin Vacherot in an ITA Top-5 singles matchup. After dropping the first set in a 7-5 tiebreak, Vale began to frustrate his opponent with his boundless energy and rock-solid play. As Vale raised his level, Vacherot faded as the senior cruised to a 6-7, 6-1, 6-2 clinching victory.
Shelton was full of praise for his captains after they notched wins against what he considers the strongest part of the Aggies lineup.
"For our two captains to come out the way they did tonight—they just refused to let us lose tonight," he said. "Once we lost the doubles point, they put it on their shoulders and said, ‘Hey, count on me. I'm going to get it done tonight.’”
Defending champs Texas pushed to the brink by USC
Back at the site of their 2019 NCAA championship victory, Texas kept their repeat hopes alive by the slimmest of margins, 4-3, over 12th-seeded USC. It was the second straight 4-3 win for the Longhorns, after they beat South Carolina by the same margin in Monday’s Round of 16, and the Austin outfit improved their season record to 10-1 in contests decided by one point.
“I think I’m going to have to spend some time figuring out what worked this year so I can bottle it and use it for future years," head coach Bruce Berque said of the team's success in the clutch. "Obviously if it happens once or twice or three times, you might chalk it up to luck, you win some you lose some. When it happens this many times, I've got to feel like there’s some special character on this team."
Thursday’s doubles point went to Texas via a Court 1 tiebreak, and four of the six singles matches went three sets in a contest that was tight throughout on nearly every court. After more than three hours of play, it all came down to No. 4 singles, where Texas’ Cleeve Harper—who was redshirting with the team during their 2019 run—locked horns with Bradley Frye.
At 4-all, USC’s Frye saved two break points to put the Trojans on the verge of the upset, but Harper answered with a commanding hold for 5-all.
Texas got the crucial break in the next game, with their sophomore flashing his defense to force Frye to hit overheads in the wind, pushing him deep in the court. By digging out three balls from the back fence, Harper drew two errors for 30-40, then turned the tables and played offense on break point to go up 6-5.
With Berque guiding him through each point, he stayed on the attack in his final service game to put Texas back in the national semifinals with a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 win. It was the second 4-3 win for Texas over USC this season, with the first coming at ITA Indoors in February, when the Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“When you’re in a 3-all match in the last eight, it’s a little nerve-wracking," Harper reflected. "My coaches always preach to me to trust myself and play aggressive. I just tried to play my game. It ended up working out for me. It’s an unbelievable feeling and it’s one I’ll remember forever.”
Earlier in the dual match, the ITA’s No. 11 ranked doubles duo of Siem Woldeab and Eliot Spizziri staked Texas a 1-0 lead by edging No. 10 Daniel Cukierman and Colter Smith, 7-4 in a tiebreak. Both the No. 1 and No. 3 pairings from Texas clawed back from deficits to win.
With the victory, both the Texas men and women are through to the NCAA semifinals.
Baylor notches efficient win over rivals TCU
In the fourth matchup of the season between these Big 12 powerhouses, Baylor scored their third consecutive win over the Horned Frogs in the last month. The conference champions flexed their singles muscles in this contest, with a trio of straight-sets singles wins delivering a deserved 4-1 victory to put the Bears into the national semifinals for the sixth time in program history and the first time since 2015.
The drama in this matchup peaked late in doubles play, with the point coming down to a tiebreak on Court 3. The Bears duo of Charlie Broom and Finn Bass forced the breaker by saving a match point on serve at 5-6, then won it, 7-5, behind a ripped Broom return.
“It was a battle out there,” said head coach Michael Woodson. “To have the excitement of it coming down to No. 3 doubles… and then have that 5-6 return [in the tiebreak], that first ball that Charlie hit was really impressive. I think it gave us a ton of momentum going into singles.”
Second-seeded Baylor, who entered the NCAA tournament at No. 1 in the ITA rankings and No. 4 in the Tennis Channel/USTA Top 25 poll, then grabbed four opening singles sets to take command of the match.
On Court 6, Spencer Furman saved set points at 5-2 down, then won five straight games to take the opener. While he extended his lead in the second set, the Bears secured wins from Sven Lah at No. 3 and Matias Soto at No. 2, with the latter coming from behind in the second set to open up a 3-1 lead for his team.
That set the table for Furman, who ran away with the match by winning 11 of the last 12 games for a 7-5, 6-1 clincher. Despite the one-sided scoreline, the graduate transfer from Ohio State needed to win two sudden-death points late in the second set, including on match point on the return.
“I thought holding serve down 5-2 in the first really gave me a lot of confidence,” Furman said. “I saved a few set points there, and then I felt like I wasn’t starting points on my terms. So that was the main adjustment and once I did that, I was able to gain momentum. But still I was winning games close after that, so it definitely wasn’t easy, but I was happy to get through it.”
The win sets up a semifinal showdown with Tennessee. After playing TCU for the fourth time, the Bears will face the Vols for the first time on the year. With the prospect of three matches in three days lying ahead, coach Woodson was pleased get the victory without any of the six singles matches entering a third set.
“I think mentally and emotionally it’s a huge deal,” he said of the clinical performance. “I feel like we got the pressure out of the way there with the doubles point and kind of felt that. To just have guys lock it down and get through in two sets is huge. That’s the name of the game right now. Our guys talk about it every night, try to win fast and lose slow and conserve your energy when you can.”
Tennessee sweeps singles to knock off Georgia
The upset bid for No. 11 seed Georgia was off to a strong start, with the Bulldogs comfortably taking the doubles point in this all-SEC matchup, then winning three sets with minimal fuss on Courts 3, 4 and 5.
But the Volunteers got on the board via their two ITA Top 10 singles players—Adam Walton at the top flight and Johannus Monday at No. 2—who both scored straight-sets victories in quick succession. Soon after, Andrew Rogers made it 3-1 with a 6-3, 7-5 win at the opposite end of the lineup.
“I was a little bit disappointed [after dropping doubles],” said UT head coach Chris Woodruff, whose team had not lost a doubles point in six weeks. “But I told them that was probably the best thing that could happen... I think they really forced us to dig in.”
Those singles results left Tennessee needing to flip one of the remaining three matches in which they dropped the opening set. By the end of play, they had worked themselves back into all of them.
“Across the board, we had guys hang in there, and no one went away, and we actually kind of flipped that match in the middle,” added Woodruff.
It was Luca Wiedenmann who finished the job, as his 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory on Court 4 put the Vols in the final four for the first time since 2010.
Still to come...
Friday is men's and women's semifinal day, with live coverage starting at 11 a.m. ET on the TennisONE app, and Tennis Channel picking it up for the evening matches at 5:30 p.m. The matchups are:
- 11 a.m. - Women's semis - No. 2 Texas vs. No. 6 NC State (TennisONE)
- 2 p.m. - Men's semis - No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 3 Tennessee (TennisONE)
- 5:30 p.m. - Women's semis - No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Pepperdine (Tennis Channel)
- NB 7:30 p.m. - Men's semis - No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 Texas (Tennis Channel)
The title matches will be played on Saturday, with the women starting at 5:30 p.m., followed by the men, not before 7:30.
For more on the 2021 NCAA Championships, including tune-in information, live scoring, and tickets, visit the tournament homepage on USTANationalCampus.com.