May Madness: No. 4 Texas men’s tennis comes back to beat No. 13 South Carolina, advances to Elite 8

Ross Fisher

The No. 4-ranked Texas men’s tennis team found itself down 3-0 against No.13 South Carolina on Monday afternoon as the end of the season loomed ever nearer. For most teams, a 3-0 deficit to a team of South Carolina’s caliber is a death sentence, but not for the Longhorns.

Texas came back to beat the Gamecocks 4-3 in the NCAA Championship Round of 16 played at the USTA Campus in Orlando, Florida. With a comeback win, Texas advances to play No. 12 USC on Thursday in the Elite 8.

In tight matches throughout the season, it always seems like Texas finds the edge. Head coach Bruce Berque praised his team’s character and ability to mount impressive comebacks when other teams would just give up.

“I think this is probably our seventh or eighth 4-3 match that came down to the wire, and we’ve lost one of them. So it’s been pretty incredible,” Berque said. “These guys are confident when they get in that situation, with their backs against the wall, that they still have a chance. That was the absolute key. I still don’t know how we exactly did it down 3-0, but just for now I’m grateful.”

Having lost the doubles point, Texas needed to win four of its singles matches to keep its season alive. Completing that feat against a South Carolina singles lineup that features the No. 2, 22, 54 and 67-ranked players was a very tall order.

It didn’t start out on a good note for the Longhorns. South Carolina sophomore Jake Beasley defeated Texas junior Chih Chi Huang at No. 5 singles. Then, Gamecock freshman Toby Samuel, No. 67, beat Texas sophomore Siem Woldeab, No. 75, on court 3.

Texas needed a perfect performance from that point onwards. They did just that, chipping away at the deficit with a couple of straight set upset wins.

Texas freshman Micah Braswell, ranked No. 38, started the comeback for the Longhorns, defeating South Carolina No. 22-ranked freshman Connor Thomson on court 2. On court 4, Texas sophomore Cleeve Harper, ranked No. 108, followed suit by defeating South Carolina’s Raphael Lambling, a sophomore ranked at No. 54.

With the No. 1 and 6 singles matches heading to a third set, all Texas had to do was win both to complete the improbable comeback.

It looked like it wouldn’t be that sort of day for Texas after sophomore Eliot Spizzirri went down 3-0 in his third set on court 1. Just as fellow sophomore Evin McDonald was storming ahead to a 5-1 lead in his third set on court 6, something clicked for No. 23 Spizzirri.

Spizzirri stormed back to make it 5-3, and eventually defeated South Carolina’s No. 2-ranked sophomore Daniel Rodrigues 6-4 in the third set.

After the incredible upset, Berque was effusive in his praise for his No. 1.

“That was awesome, especially being down 3-0 in the third set,” Berque said. “This is his first NCAA Tournament, so he’s basically a freshman. Huge win for him — he played great tennis. … He’s coming into his own and understanding a little bit better how he needs to play against some of these top guys.”

Even though McDonald held a 5-1 lead at one point, he faltered down the stretch and threatened to lose Texas’ improbable comeback. McDonald found the spark to hold service with his back against the wall, and then came up with a break to clinch the match for Texas.

McDonald was on top of the world after the clinch.

“It just makes me feel so happy, because we’re just such a young team. I feel like everyone keeps counting us out,” McDonald said. “At this point I can say we’re probably the ‘clutchest’ team, because we’re 10-1 in 4-3 (matches) and we just gotta keep it going. We gotta use this as momentum and just go on to the next one.”

The comeback win sets up a rematch between Texas and USC in the Elite 8, after Texas got the better of then-ranked No. 1 USC in a ridiculous 4-3 comeback win at the ITA Indoor Championship. That match will be back at the USTA National Campus on Thursday.