STARKVILLE, Miss. – After earning the doubles point for the fourth consecutive match and posting three straight-set wins in singles action, the sixth-ranked University of Kentucky men’s tennis team punched its ticket to the Southeastern Conference Tournament Finals for the second consecutive season, defeating No. 13 Ole Miss 4-0 in the semifinals on Saturday at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre in Starkville, Miss.
The Wildcats will face second-seeded and fourth-ranked Georgia in the title match Sunday at 2 p.m. ET. Kentucky and Georgia met once this season with UK taking down then-No. 3 UGA 4-3 in Athens, Ga., marking its first win over the Bulldogs in Athens since 1997. UK has defeated Georgia in each of the last two meetings, including a win in the SEC Tournament semifinals last season.
This is the second consecutive finals appearance for Kentucky (26-4) and the third in school history. UK made a memorable run through the SEC Tournament last year before falling to host Florida in the finals. Before the 2011 season, Kentucky’s lone title appearance was 1992 when it won the championship over LSU. All three finals appearances have come under Emery’s tenure.
“As I told our team after the match, one of the things that I am most proud of is when they came here Kentucky was a really good solid school, but some of the other schools were the sexier destination schools,” UK head coach Dennis Emery said. “I think what they have done as a group is now Kentucky is the place to be and this will only help us going forward in our recruiting. Coach (Cedric) Kauffmann just did a fabulous job today on the courts really providing an emotional spark there. We had a good start in singles, but things started drifting there and he did a great job of helping bring it around.”
The victory over the highly ranked Rebels (13-8) was the 11th consecutive for Kentucky this season, which is a season-long winning streak. It also continued UK’s impressive streak in the nation’s best conference as the Wildcats have now won 21 of their last 22 SEC matches, including 16 consecutive SEC regular season matches.
With its win over Ole Miss, Kentucky continued its success this season against the best teams in the nation, moving its record to 22-4 against currently ranked teams. The Wildcats also have four wins against top-10 teams this season, while they hold an 11-3 record against teams currently ranked in the top 25. UK has won a total of 31 matches against top-25 ranked teams since the start of the 2009 season.
The match started with Kentucky winning the doubles point for the 19th time this season and the fourth consecutive. UK again earned a strong performance in doubles from its sophomore duo of Alejandro Gomez and Tom Jomby. The two stars were the first to finish at three doubles, taking down Johan Backstrom and William Kallberg 8-5.
Kentucky would then clinch the doubles point at court one, getting a strong win from 12th-ranked Eric Quigley and Panav Jha over 21st-ranked Nik Scholtz and Jonas Lutjen. Quigley and Jha earned a break midway through the match with Quigley serving a 7-5 to clinch the point. After Scholtz and Lutjen earned the first two points to put UK down love-30, Quigley and Jha fought back with four consecutive points to earn win the match 8-5. Kentucky is now 19-0 this season when it wins the doubles point.
“The first thing that I think we did great was we came out and really took it to them in the doubles,” UK head coach Dennis Emery said. “Their doubles are great but we played fantastic in the doubles and did a good job of closing it out also once we got on top.”
Quigley, who is ranked third in the nation in singles by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, led Kentucky in singles action, earning the decisive fourth point of the match with a historic win. The senior grabbed the first set from No. 15 Scholtz 6-4 and then broke Scholtz at 6-5 in the second set to grab the victory. The win was his 46th of the season, which breaks the school record for most singles wins in a season. Quigley and former UK great Joe Leytze held the record previously with 45 wins. So far this season, Quigley is 46-6 in singles.
“Eric beat a really good player today and a guy that is really dangerous,” Emery said. “He (Scholtz) has a huge serve and Eric knew he had to return well in order to win and he did that. He played the big points really good today.”
The Wildcats’ second and third points of the match came from a pair of sophomores in No. 76 Jomby and No. 112 Jha. Jomby was the first singles match to finish, giving UK a 2-0 lead. The native of Nantes, France, jumped out to early breaks in both sets against No. 84 Kallberg to secure the dominating 6-3, 6-3 win. Jomby is now 2-0 in singles in the tournament and 28-10 overall this season.
“It’s not just the way he has played in this tournament but he has played this way basically all year,” Emery said about how well Jomby has played so far this weekend. “He has had very little letdowns. He is somebody who has a lot of athletic ability and a big serve so you kind of think that he will throw in some clunkers there, but he really hasn’t done that. I think that is a sign of his maturity over the last couple of months. He has really picked it up from an emotional standpoint and you could see it today.”
Jha secured the third point of the match for Kentucky, getting an impressive win at No. 6 singles over Backstrom. After dominating the first set 6-0, Jha and Backstrom went back and forth for much of the second set until Jha earned a break and then held serve to go up 5-3. Backstrom would hold serve to cut the lead to 5-4 before Jha held serve again to close out the match 6-0, 6-4.
“Panav Jha came out and really gave us a lift at six to get that victory,” Emery said. “I thought that was a key turning point in the match, even though it looked like we were going to win some others later, but at that point in time it really took a lot of pressure off the other guys and it was great to see him step up and do that.”
Three singles matches remained on court when Quigley clinched the decisive fourth point. At court two, UK star Alex Musialek had just won a thrilling first set tiebreaker over No. 26 Marcel Thiemann 7-2, while the second set was on serve 1-1. Musialek, who is ranked 14th in the nation in singles, is having a fantastic season for the Wildcats, including winning seven of his last eight matches against some quality opponents.
Rossi, who is ranked 19th in the nation in singles, was also in good position to win at court three. After winning the first set 6-3, No. 39 Lutjen grabbed the second set 6-1. The UK star bounced back in the third set however and was leading 4-1 with two break points when Quigley clinched the match.
No. 110 Gomez and Chris Thiemann was the final match still on court when UK won. Gomez fell in the first set 6-1, before posting a 6-3 win in the second set. The match was on serve in the third set 4-3 with Gomez serving when play was suspended.
Georgia advanced to the finals with a 4-3 victory over No. 9 and host Mississippi State on Saturday in the semifinals. The Bulldogs took down No. 17 Auburn in the quarterfinals Friday.
“We played a great match down there against Georgia,” Emery said after the victory over Ole Miss on Saturday night. “Again, a big key was us going down there and getting the doubles point. We played great on the big points against them and executed well and that is what we will have to do tomorrow. When you play a team as good as Georgia with all their tradition, you have to play flawless. It would be a big step for us if we could win this tournament for the first time since 1992.”