By Jim Harvin, Correspondent
The top-seeded Florida men’s tennis team seemed headed for a berth in Sunday’s championship final of the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Saturday’s semifinal match with No. 4 seed Tennessee.
After the Volunteers captured the doubles point, the Gators responded by reeling off three straight wins in singles to take a 3-1 lead, needing just one more point to clinch the match at the Ring Tennis Complex.
Unfortunately, that point never came, as Tennessee advanced with a come-from-behind 4-3 win over UF to move into today’s title match opposite No. 2 seed Mississippi State.
“Hats off to Tennessee,” UF coach Bryan Shelton said. “They came and played just an awesome match.
“I thought those guys were really well-prepared. I told our guys in the locker room after the match that we’ve got to give them a lot of credit because they played us tough in the doubles, then played us tough in the singles. They were super, super disciplined with their play. They made very few unforced errors, especially at the end of that match. So when the pressure really ramped up, they just stayed steady.”
After falling behind 1-0 following the doubles, the Gators (21-3) got straight-set wins at No. 5 singles from Alfredo Perez, who defeated Martim Prata 6-2, 6-2 and at No. 6 from Duarte Vale, who took down Preston Touliatos a few minutes later by a 6-1, 6-4 count.
When UF ace Oliver Crawford, ranked No. 11 nationally, followed with another straight-set win at No. 1 singles by defeating the Vols’ Timo Stodder 6-4, 6-2, the Gators were up 3-1 and only needed one more win to advance.
But the Vols (20-6) hung tough, winning at No. 3 singles when Scott Jones defeated Johannes Ingildsen 6-4, 6-2 to pull within 3-2, then tying the match at 3-all when Luca Wiedemann rallied past Andy Andrade 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 at No. 4.
That left freshman Sam Riffice battling Tennessee’s Adam Walton at No. 2, and though he gave it his all, he fell 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 as the Vols pulled off their stunning comeback.
“I definitely had my chances in that final set,” Riffice said. “I thought I did everything I could. He just hit some better shots than me and some good passing shots at key points. I thought I kept coming at him but he just kept coming back with some better stuff.”
Shelton credited his guys for their effort.
“I’m proud of our guys, who competed extremely hard as we have all season,” he noted. “It’s always tough to lose those matches and it’s really tough to lose at home, where we feel like we’ve got a huge advantage. Again, Tennessee was just a little bit too good today.”
In the opening semifinal, No. 6 seed South Carolina jumped out to a 1-0 lead by winning the doubles point, but No. 2 seed Mississippi State came back to dominate singles and score a 4-2 win.
Today’s title match between Mississippi State and Tennessee is set for 2 p.m.