April 20, 2012
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- The Tennessee Volunteers pushed ninth-ranked Mississippi State to the brink but could not complete the comeback Friday in the quarterfinals of the SEC Championship.
The Vols fought off match points and pushed three courts to three sets but eventually fell 4-2 to the host team in front of a capacity crowd at A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre.
Though they lost the deciding point in doubles, freshmen Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese led the way for the Vols in singles at the top of the lineup. Both provided the Vols' points on the scoreboard, with Libietis recording his first career top-10 win, beating No. 10 Artem Illyushin 7-6 (6), 6-2.
"There's a lot of room for growth, and I can see the growth happening," Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "I can see Mikelis growing. He came out timid in doubles but in singles played to win. There are some other guys out there just battling and doing an awesome job, but we have to be able to turn that fighting into a little meanness. To turn that fight into a win."
The Vols (14-13) are currently ranked 16th nationally and are on the verge of being a first- and second-round host for the NCAA Championships. The Vols will learn when and where they play May 1, when NCAA.com's selection show airs at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.
Tennessee fell behind early on the top two courts in doubles for the second day in a row. Edward Jones and Jarryd Chaplin lost quickly 8-3 with the crowd cheering the Bulldogs on. On court 1, 10th-ranked Libietis and Reese lost for the second day in a row. After getting back on serve at 5-5, Libietis was broken right back en route to an 8-6 loss against Illyushin and George Coupland.
Once singles play begin, Mississippi State gained an immediate edge by going up a break on all six courts. The Vols fought back with Libietis and junior Taylor Patrick winning first-set tiebreakers on courts 1 and 6, giving Tennessee two first sets.
As matches moved into the second sets, the Bulldogs put two more points on the board. Louis Cant, ranked 46th, beat Jones 6-3, 6-0 on court 5, and Coupland broke Chaplin at 4-4 in the second set to hold on for the 6-4, 6-4 win, putting Mississippi State up 3-0.
From there, Tennessee started gaining momentum.
On court 1, Libietis rallied from a break down in the first set against Ilyushin to force a tiebreaker. He cruised in the second set, sealing the 7-6 (6), 6-2 win on a double fault by Illyushin to put the Vols on the board at 3-1.
Reese lost his first set 6-0 and trailed 5-2 in the second to last season's SEC Freshman of the Year Malte Stropp. He faced five match points in the second set before rattling off five games in a row on court 2, eventually winning the match 0-6, 7-5, 6-2 to close Mississippi State's lead to 3-2.
Knoxville natives Brandon Fickey and Patrick were the last Vols on court, both in the third sets at the No. 3 and 6 positions. Patrick had his serve broken early in the third set by Zach White and was broken again at the end to seal the 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3 loss, which clinched the match for Mississippi State.
Fickey serving down 4-2 in the second set when the match was suspended.
Tennessee (14-13) has now lost seven matches this season against top-10 opponents.
"We have improved so much as a team," Winterbotham said. "It's clear for anybody to see. Everybody keeps talking about how well the team has improved and how well they've done this year. In everybody's minds, apart from the coaching staff, this team is overachieving.
"I believe this team is capable of winning this tournament. I'm proud of what we're doing but we've got to get better."
Mississippi State 4, Tennessee 2
1. #32 Mikelis Libietis, UT, def. #10 Artem Illyushin, MSU, 7-6 (6), 6-2
2. #80 Hunter Reese, UT, def. #77 Malte Stropp, MSU, 0-6, 7-5, 6-2
3. Brandon Fickey, UT, vs. James Chaudry, MSU, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 2-4 DNF
4. #55 George Coupland, MSU, def. Jarryd Chaplin, UT, 6-4, 6-4
5. #46 Louis Cant, MSU, def. Edward Jones, UT, 6-3, 6-0
6. Zach White, MSU, def. Taylor Patrick, UT, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3
1. #35 Coupland/Illyushin, MSU, def. #10 Libietis/Reese, UT, 8-6
2. #44 Stropp/Cant, MSU, def. Chaplin/Jones, UT, 8-3
3. Nagovnak/Swartz, UT, vs. White/Wilkinson, MSU, 5-4
Order of Finish: Doubles (2,1); Singles (5,4,1,2,6).