TULSA, Okla. – For the second time in roughly 24 hours, the 11th-seeded Oklahoma men’s tennis team had its back against the wall at the NCAA Championships, tied 3-all with one singles match remaining. For the second night in a row, Oklahoma emerged victorious.
With a clinching three-set win from junior Alex Ghilea at the number four singles position, the Sooners defeated No. 7 seed Georgia 4-3 Monday night in the semifinals to advance to their third straight NCAA final.
"NCAAs is just a different animal. You have to fight all the time, and with this support here? It’s unbelievable.”
— Junior Alex Ghilea
“I’d like to congratulate Georgia,” OU head coach John Roddick said. “What a match, two nights in a row. It’s a shame people have to lose those matches. Our teams have a lot of crossover, a lot of mutual respect. It’s a great program they have. It was just a hell of a match tonight.”
Ghilea, lovingly called 'The Machine' by his teammates, dropped the first set of his match against No. 123 Walker Duncan in a tiebreaker, but rallied to win the second set 6-3 and force a third. That effort proved critical as with all other matches finished and the score knotted, all eyes turned to Ghilea’s third set.
“I said you have to dig in here. There’s a very good chance that you’re going to be the guy here,” Roddick said. “That’s what he wants. He loves that. Florin (Bragusi) and Alex, our two Romanians, have won probably more clinching matches than anyone in OU history. Either one of them out on the court is who we want to have out there. Alex loves that position, as you can see. He did a good job of taking control of that third set early.”
The Neamt, Romania, native broke Duncan in the first game of the third set and then again to take a 4-1 lead and put all the pressure on his opponent. That would be enough as he held serve the rest of the way to win 6-2 and clinch the win for Oklahoma.
“I played a little tentative in the first set and that showed,” Ghilea said. “I relaxed a little after that, just went after my shots. My forehand got a little bit bigger and it allowed me to put pressure on him. NCAAs is just a different animal. You have to fight all the time, and with this support here? It’s unbelievable. It’s the best crowd I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The doubles point was pivotal again for Oklahoma as, just like it did Sunday against UCLA, it split the singles matches 3-3. Leading 5-4, OU’s number two pairing of Alex Ghilea and Spencer Papa broke Paul Oosterbaan and Jan Zielisnski to take the first win of the day.
The clinching doubles win came at the number three spot where senior Austin Siegel and freshman Andre Biro faced Wayne Montgomery and Emil Reinberg. The Sooners trailed by a break early, but took one of their own to get back on serve at 4-all. Just as it did on court two, Oklahoma broke UGA at 5-4 to claim the victory at the three spot and claim the doubles point.
“If we didn’t turn our doubles around, we would’ve lost the last two matches,” Roddick said. “The other two teams matched us in singles. We won three points the last two nights. If we don’t play the kind of doubles we’ve been playing this week, then we’re not sitting here trying to get ready for the finals. I’m proud of the guys to be able to come on this stage and be able to start executing.”
UGA quickly cut down that momentum with wins at numbers one and three singles to lead 2-1. On the remaining four courts, OU had taken the first set on two of them.
Junior Alex Ghilea, "The Machine," celebrates a break in the third set Monday night. Ghilea's three-set win at number four singles clinched the win for Oklahoma.
Biro, the clincher from Sunday night’s quarterfinal win over UCLA, leveled the dual at 2-all with a 7-6(5), 7-5 win over Nick Wood at the number six spot. Biro has now won six matches in a row and 11 of his last 12. The freshman from Hungary rallied from a 3-5 deficit in the first set breaker, winning the last four points to take the extra frame 7-5.
Florin Bragusi followed Biro up with a win at the number five spot. The junior took the first set from Zielinski but a crucial break in the second from UGA forced a decisive third frame. Bragusi broke Zielinski in the first game of the third set and then held several close service games to take a 6-2 win in the third and put Oklahoma back on top at 3-2.
“It’s crazy that we are in the finals but we got one more match to go, so we just have to get ready for our match and drink everything we can, get treatment and all that stuff,” Bragusi said. "We just have to be ready to play a great match tomorrow against a very good team, Virginia.”
Just moments after Bragusi’s win, UGA again leveled the match when No. 32 Montgomery broke the serve of senior Axel Alvarez at 6-5 in the third set at number two singles. Alvarez had claimed the first set, but gave up the second 6-2. OU’s all-time wins leader had a chance to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third but he would drop the next three games.
Tied up at 3-all, fans rushed to court four to where Ghilea had just broken Duncan in the first game of the third set, setting up his clinching win.
“It’s weird. Every match is different,” Roddick said. “Tonight, once Alex really established what he wanted to establish, I wasn’t nervous at all, because I felt like he was doing what he needed to do to have a very good chance of winning that match. Sometimes when guys aren’t doing it, it’s nail-biting. It feels like it takes years off your life. Tonight, I don’t think that was the case. I have a lot of confidence in Alex out there, and even Andre (Biro) and Florin, when I was looking at the scores, I knew what they were doing and how they were doing it, and they did a great job.”
With the win, Oklahoma secured a place in the NCAA final for the third consecutive season. The Sooners will take on No. 1 Virginia, just as they did a year ago, at 6 p.m. CT. In 2015, OU topped the Cavaliers 4-3 in a regular season match in Norman, but fell 4-1 in the national title match to finish as national runner-up for the second year in a row.
“We’ve had good matches with Virginia over the last few years,” Roddick said. “I expect tomorrow to be another good one. They’ve been probably, them and USC, over the last 10 years, one of the dominant programs. So we’re just trying to break in to that. Tomorrow is a step in that direction. For us, if this team can do that, we’ve come a long way. We’ve come a long way regardless. Our team is competitive, and you don’t lose that just because you’re a little bit tired. I think we’re going to feel good tomorrow.”
Fans can purchase tickets for Tuesday’s championship match here.
For more information on Oklahoma Men’s Tennis, follow the team on Twitter at @OU_MTennis.
2. Ghilea/Papa def. Oosterbaan/Zielinski - 6-4
3.#64 Paul Oosterbaan def. #82 Spencer Papa - 6-4, 7-5