The No. 3 North Carolina men’s tennis team advanced to its third-straight Elite Eight with a 4-0 victory over No. 21 Mississippi State at the Case Tennis Center, in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday. This is the Tar Heels (28-4, 9-3 ACC) second-straight victory over the Bulldogs (18-9, 7-5 SEC) in NCAA Tournament play, having defeated them 4-1 in 2015.
The Tar Heels took an early lead after narrowly pulling out the doubles point against the Bulldogs.
Sophomore Robert Kelly was not in the lineup for Thursday’s match due to an injury, Coach Sam Paul hopes to have him back for UNC's Elite Eight match. He was replaced in doubles by redshirt-senior Andrew Gores, and in singles by first-year Blaine Boyden. Gores and senior Brett Clark were moved to the No. 3 position.
The duo of junior Ronnie Schneider and first-year Anu Kodali were unaffected by the change, and won their match, 6-2. However, Gores and Clark struggled to find their rhythm, and lost their match decisively, 6-2. This left juniors Braydon Schnur and Jack Murray in a position to clinch the point for their team.
In what turned out to be a very even match, the two teams would trade games all the way to a tiebreaker. Even in the tiebreaker there was never much separation, with ties at 3-3, 4-4 and 5-5. Schnur and Murray would then eventually take control of the match, winning the next two points and giving the Tar Heels a 1-0 lead.
No. 26 Schnur continued the momentum into his singles match. After trailing 3-0 early in the first set against No. 34 Mate Cutura, he would reel off six games in a row to take the first set. He would then pick up a second point for his team with a 6-4 second-set win.
Clark rebounded in singles play, from his rocky performance in doubles, to win in straight sets. Murray then clinched the victory for his team with a straight-sets victory of his own.
Who Stood Out?
The absence of Kelly left a hole in the lineup, and UNC needed the other members of the team to step in a big moment, Schnur and Murray did that for them on Thursday. Playing against Mississippi State’s No. 1 doubles team, something the pair is not accustomed to doing, they never let the match get away from them, always staying within one game of their opponent and pulling out the doubles point in a tightly contested match.
They both won their matches in straight sets as well, accounting for three of the four points that the Tar Heels needed to win the match. Schnur picked up another win over a ranked opponent, his seventh of the season. Murray picked up his 26th victory of the year in what Paul called, “the best singles match he’s played this year.”
When was it decided?
With UNC up 2-0 Clark made his mark on the team’s victory. After winning in straight sets, and giving his team a commanding 3-0 lead, he was met courtside by his doubles partner, and friend, Kelly with a congratulatory hug. Only minutes later on the next court over, Murray would also win in straight sets, giving the Tar Heels the victory.
Why does it Matter?
The win over Mississippi State sets the program record for wins in a single season. It also advances the team to a third-consecutive Elite Eight appearance, and gives the upperclassman one more shot at getting over the hurdle of making it to the Final Four, something that has never been done in program history.
The players and coaches have both said this is a very special team and one they feel has the talent to make it the most successful in the history of the program. The team has backed up its claim to this point, having yet to surrender a single point during this year’s NCAA Tournament.
When do they play next?
The Tar Heels will take the court against No. 7 Georgia on Sunday at 5 p.m.