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May 15, 2005


Stillwater, Okla. – The 19th-ranked USC Gamecock men’s tennis team came back from the brink of elimination on Sunday to upset 13th-ranked and host Oklahoma State 4-3 in the NCAA Stillwater Regional. Carolina was down 3-0 after doubles and two singles matches, but wins from Pedro Rodrigues, Dmitry Babenko, and Jaime Cuellar leveled the score at three and then senior Ben Atkinson clinched the upset with his 7-2, third-set tiebreaker win at No. 6 singles. With the win, the Gamecocks (20-9, 6-5 SEC) advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1998, where they will take on Gainesville Regional winner Florida next Saturday in College Station, Texas.

The doubles began as a tightly contested point, and that wouldn’t change over the course of the three matches. OSU got an early break over Ben Atkinson and Dmitry Babenko on court three and held on the rest of the way for an 8-3 win. Carolina would even the doubles point at one match apiece two minutes later when freshman Jaime Cuellar and junior Tom Eklund earned two straight service breaks in the Cowboys’ final two service games to seal the 8-5 win. Cuellar was able to clinch the winning break with a backhand just behind OSU’s XXXX on the ad side of the court.

The most dramatic match would be at No. 1 doubles, where USC’s 23rd-ranked duo of Pedro Rodrigues and Geraldo Knorr were taking on 55th-ranked Mark Van Elden and Daniel Byrnes. The two pairs, both of who earned automatic bids to the NCAA Doubles Tournament, were strong in their service games and neither side surrendered a break. The match would come down to a 12-point tiebreaker, and Van Elden and Byrnes led 5-1 two-thirds of the way through the game. However, Knorr and Rodrigues would both hold serve their next two tries and earned a point off of Byrnes’ serve to close the gap to 5-6. However, on the next serve, Van Elden put an ace just out of reach of Knorr’s backhand in the ad court to seal the doubles point for the Cowboys.

OSU carried their momentum from the deciding doubles match into the singles matches, and won two quick points at Nos. 1 and 5 singles, 6-3, 6-1 and 6-2, 6-1, respectively. With the Cowboys holding a 3-0 lead, the match looked bleak for USC, but sophomore Dmitry Babenko put Carolina on the board with his 6-3, 6-2 win over Artie Burmistrau at No. 5 singles. Rodrigues, a native of Brasilia, Brazil, would pull back another point for the Gamecocks at No. 2 singles. The USC sophomore won a first set tiebreaker 7-4, and then earned his third service break of the match in the final game of the second set for a 7-6(4), 7-5 win over the Cowboys’ Boris Kuharic.

Down 3-2, the focus was on courts three and six. At No. 3 singles, Carolina’s Jaime Cuellar had won the first set 6-2 over 90th-ranked Tomas Bohunicky, but was taken out of his rhythm early in the second set and trailed 5-1 when Rodrigues and Babenko clinched their matches. However, when the El Salvadorian freshman broke Bohunicky to 2-5, the momentum shifted abruptly. Cuellar was stoppable after that, and won four straight games to take a 6-5 lead. The Cowboys’ second NCAA singles qualifier broke Cuellar in the next game to send the set to a tiebreaker. Cuellar dominated the tiebreaker, and with a 6-4 lead, he nailed a big serve into the deuce court to Bohunicky’s backhand that the OSU junior hit off his racket frame high and left into the stands at court one for the match winner.

With the match all tied at three, the only players left on the court were USC’s Ben Atkinson and OSU’s Felipe Diaz at No. 6 singles. The two split sets and went into a deciding third set. After the pair traded service games, neither one held serve for the nearly 24 minutes. Six straight service breaks later, Diaz finally held serve to take a 5-4 lead. Atkinson and Diaz both held serve the next two games and Atkinson was serving with Diaz up 6-5. With Carolina’s lone senior down Love-15, Atkinson hit a cross-court forehand less than an inch inside the ad court that was called out by Diaz. An overrule by the chair umpire however saved the point and instead of trailing Love-30, Atkinson and Diaz were tied at 15 all.

That would prove to be the turning point of the match, as Atkinson went on to win the game and leveled the set at six games apiece. The fans and teams could not have asked for a more dramatic set-up, with the final match of an NCAA regional final down to the final singles match and a third-set tiebreaker. The tension was high, but Atkinson, who was playing what could have been the final match of his collegiate career, excelled in front of the more than 300-strong OSU crowd, and hit a forehand that landed right on the deuce court sideline to seal the upset and improve his NCAA singles record to 2-1.

Carolina will face SEC Champion Florida, who defeated Vanderbilt 4-1 on Sunday, in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, May 21 on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. This marks the seventh time the Gamecocks have advanced to the last 16. USC last won a match in that round during the 1989 season, when they defeated Alabama 5-2 in Athens, Ga., and advanced to the Final Four.