March 27, 2016
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By Chuck Pool (email@example.com)
Ninth-ranked Texas Tech flexed its muscle at the top of the lineup, but the 40th ranked Rice Owls rode a dramatic tiebreaker win in doubles and their depth throughout the lineup to down the Red Raiders 4-3 in the championship match of the 58th Rice Invitational at the George R. Brown Tennis Center on Sunday afternoon.
The win snapped a 12-match losing streak for the Owls against top ten teams while extending their winning streak in the Invitational to nine. It also broke a five-match losing streak against Texas Tech (21-3), which saw its six-match winning streak snapped. Rice improved to 17-5 after sweeping through all three matches over the weekend.
"They (the Owls) brought it, all weekend long." Rice head coach Efe Ustundag said. "I told them before the match that it was 50-50 on all courts. It was a matter of heart and desire and a matter of us needing to prove that we belong up there (in the rankings). There have been so many upsets this year in college tennis and a lot of parity and it was our time. Sooner or later, if you continue to train hard and concentrate on the things we are working to improve, eventually it's got to go your way--especially playing at home. "
After seeing his Owls deliver a spirited effort in their opening win on Friday over No. 44 Drake and then struggle in a win over No. 74 William and Mary in the nightcap, Ustundag was not sure what to expect from this team on Sunday until he arrived at the GRBTC.
"I felt like we were tired last night when we went home, but when I saw them this morning, it felt like a rejuvenated and excited group. They fought their tails off today," he noted.
Ustundag knew going in that with three ranked players at the top of the Tech lineup, the path to an upset win would come through a combination of winning the doubles point and then relying on the strength of the Owls throughout their lineup.
Even though Raiders also sported two ranked doubles teams, they had dropped the doubles point in their first match of the tournament to William and Mary, and Ustundag felt there was an opportunity for the Owls to do the same.
However, that plan quickly seemed in peril as Tech grabbed a win on court one and ran out to a 4-1 lead on court three.
But while freshmen Jake Hansen and Emanuel Llamas might have been in a deep deficit, Ustundag felt confident that they would rally.
"They really were not playing badly, so unless I looked at the scoreboard, it never felt like they were losing 4-1," Ustundag said. "As we started pushing, we saw some hesitation from Tech and maybe a little doubt started to creep in after they lost doubles yesterday. Whatever happened, our two young guys really took advantage of it."
Hansen and Llamas rallied to take their set 7-5, shifting the focus to court two , where Adam Gustafsson and Jamie Malik had extended Tech's 57th ranked team of Alex Sendegeya and Bjorn Thomson to a tiebreraker.
Their quest for the doubles point seemed doomed when Tech took a 6-3 lead in the tie break, but the Owls fought off a total of five match points to outlast their opponents from Lubbock and take the doubles point with a 14-12 win in the tiebreaker.
In singles, Tech's strength at the top was quickly evidenced with a quick win on court one, but Rice won three of six first sets in singles and junior David Warren and Llamas went on to win in straight sets and move the Owls' lead to 3-1.
Warren finished first, improving to a team-leading 13-2 in dual singles, while Llamas improved to 10-5 after being the only Owl to win each of this three singles matches to go along with teaming with Hansen to win all three doubles assignments.
Ustundag said Llamas productive weekend came after an intense week of training.
"This has actually been a tough week of training for him, because we got on to him at the start of the week," Ustundag said "He was doing some freshman-type things in terms of his preparation and how he was managing his practice assignments and we got on him early and hard. But I love how he responded to the challenge. He was playing the more physical brand of tennis we have been asking him to play, and it all just clicked. As he started to see the results, he owned the new approach and got on a roll. He just never doubted himself and that was great to see."
While Tech answered again with wins on two and three to tie the match, Hansen foiled any hopes for a further comeback by winning in three sets to set off an on-court celebration with his teammates.
"We've been working so hard all these four years that I have been here and finally we beat a top ten team," Gustafsson said. "This means the world to me. This is what college tennis is all about. This is a huge win for us. This is what we've practicing for and we're going to keep it rolling from here."