PALO ALTO, Calif. (utsports.com) -- The Tennessee Volunteers’ NCAA tournament run ended Saturday in a quarterfinal match that came down to the wire.
The third-seeded Vols had beaten Georgia twice in the regular season but could not close the door a third time, letting the lead in doubles slip away and eventually losing 4-3 at Taube South Stadium.
Senior John-Patrick Smith had chances to take the lead on court 1 but fell victim to illness and cramping late in the third set, dropping the deciding match 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 to Wil Spencer.
“I’ve been to enough NCAA Championships to know those matches are out there, where everyone gives everything they have,” Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. “We’ll reflect on how we played, and I think we’ll be disappointed. When we reflect on our efforts, we won’t be disappointed.”
After the Vols (24-5) put away the doubles point, Georgia jumped ahead quickly from the start of singles, taking three first sets and pushing one to a third. Georgia eventually took a 3-2 lead, leaving Smith and sophomore Rhyne Williams the last Tennessee players on courts 1 and 2.
In a long match that required a first-set comeback, Williams defeated Javier Garrapiz 7-5, 7-5 to tie the score 3-3, meaning court 1’s outcome would decide the match.
Smith and Spencer had split sets, each taking one by a score of 6-2. In the third set, however, Smith started to produce multiple break point chances and looked to take the lead several times.
The tides turned in Spencer’s favor, however, when Smith was receiving at 5-5. At 0-15, Smith suddenly vomited behind the baseline while Spencer was serving. Although Smith tried to stop play, Spencer was awarded the ace and play was halted several minutes to clean the court.
After Smith stepped back out to receive at 15-15, he eventually earned a break point opportunity. After his first attempt was foiled, Smith had to take a medical timeout because of cramping with the game at deuce several points later.
Smith took the court a second time and got the advantage. With a chance to go up 6-5, he missed a shot just wide left. From there, cramps started taking over for the Vols’ leader.
“JP was probably favored as the match was going down because Spencer was cramping,” Winterbotham said. “He put everything out there in that shot, and then he started cramping. I can’t fault his effort.
Needing to hold serve to extend the match into a tiebreaker, Smith was broken to end the match 6-2, 2-6, 7-5, and Georgia earned the trip to the semifinals where they will face two-time defending champion Southern California.
“I had chances in the third, and some of those point didn’t go my way,” Smith said. “I was starting to build some momentum, then I threw up on the court. There were all these ups and downs, but that’s tennis. It’s a sad way to go out . . . but that’s life.”
While Smith still has NCAA singles and doubles tournaments to play, his remarkable career in collegiate team competition came to a close, as did fellow seniors Boris Conkic and Matteo Fago. The three led the Vols to 101 team wins during their careers, the most victories in a four-year period in program history.
“JP has been amazing for this program,” Winterbotham said. “His leadership and the way he comes to work and gives everything he has whether in matches or practice is inspirational ... I’m definitely disappointed for those three seniors. I love those guys.”
Tennessee started the afternoon match by seizing early momentum in doubles. Smith and Conkic, the top-ranked doubles pairing, came off a rare loss Thursday to beat sixth-ranked Garrapiz and Hernus Pieters 8-4. Fago and Edward Jones clinched the point with an 8-4 win against Spencer and Drake Bernstein on court 3.
In singles, however, Georgia seized control on most courts within the first few minutes.
Conkic was the first off the court and gave Tennessee the 2-0 lead with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Bernstein on court 4, but that was the last good news the Vols got in a long time.
Fago lost his final collegiate match 6-1, 6-2 to Ignacio Taboada on court 5, and Jones followed a few minutes later by falling 6-1, 6-3 to Pieters on court 6, which tied the match 2-2.
Sadio Doumbia then beat sophomore Tennys Sandgren 6-2, 6-2 on court 3 to give Georgia the 3-2 lead, leaving courts 1 and 2 to decide the match.
“Georgia knew where they were favored,” Winterbotham said. “The problem was, the matches they were not favored in, they made us work way harder. We just got off the court too quickly.”
While the Vols are out of the team competition, there are still matches to be played individually. Smith, Williams and Sandgren are all in the NCAA singles draw, with Williams seeded fourth and Smith getting a 9-16 seed. Singles play begins May 25.
In doubles, Smith and Conkic are the top-seeded pair. Smith certainly knows how to progress in that tournament, having reached the finals the last two years. He was also a singles finalist in 2008. Doubles starts May 26.
Doubles (Order of Finish: 1, 3)
1. #1 Conkic/Smith (TENN) d. #6 Garrapiz/Pieters (UGA) 8-4
2. #72 Sandgren/Williams (TENN) vs. #88 Doumbia/Taboada (UGA)
3. Fago/Jones (TENN) d. Bernstein/Spencer (UGA) 8-4
1. #18 Will Spencer (UGA) d. #11 John-Patrick Smith (TENN) 2-6, 6-2, 7-5
2. #3 Rhyne Williams (TENN) d. #32 Javier Garrapiz (UGA) 7-5, 7-5
3. #51 Sadio Doumbia (UGA) d. #45 Tennys Sandgren (TENN) 6-2, 6-2
4. Boris Conkic (TENN) d. Drake Bernstein (UGA) 6-3, 6-1
5. Ignacio Taboada (UGA) d. #80 Matteo Fago (TENN) 6-1, 6-2
6. Hernus Pieters (UGA) d. Edward Jones (TENN) 6-1, 6-3
Order of Finish: Doubles (1,3); Singles (4,5,6,3,2,1)
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