ATHENS, Ga. – The final game was like so many in the hours before it.
Pepperdine's Alex Llompart celebrates with teammates after his match-clinching victory at No. 3 singles Sunday. (Photo courtesy of Bill Kallenberg and Pepperdine University)
The last Georgia player on the court, senior Sadio Doumbia, had two break points to square the final set and keep the home team’s season alive.
But the story of Sunday’s surprising NCAA tennis quarterfinal was where Georgia had missed opportunities, underdog Pepperdine found results. In this case, senior Alex Llompart won four consecutive points, the final two on netted shots by Doumbia, to seize an emotional 7-6 (2), 6-7 (2), 6-4 victory at No. 3 singles.
And so read the final score: Pepperdine 4, Georgia 3.
“They really owned the big moments,” UGA coach Manuel Diaz said of Pepperdine. “They really brought their best tennis at the most important times.”
So NCAA title hopes for the second-seeded Bulldogs (26-3) were swept up by the No. 7 seed Waves (27-6), who continued rolling with a 24th consecutive victory that assured Monday’s NCAA semifinal date with No. 3 seed Virginia (28-1).
For Georgia and the majority of the 3,167 in attendance Sunday at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, it was a thrilling showcase and a most disappointing finish for one of the favorites in this week’s tournament.
“We all agreed that we maybe could have played better,” Diaz said, “but I really think that a lot of that was the fact that Pepperdine just played loose. They played aggressive, and they played very composed in the most important moments.
"We can’t hang our heads. I know our guys are disappointed, but I’m really proud of the way we hung in there.”
Nathan Pasha's three-set victory at No. 5 singles put UGA up 3-1, but the lead wouldn't last. (Photo by C.B. Schmelter/UGA Sports Communications)
A match that pushed the five-hour mark saw the Bulldogs lose the doubles point but fight back to seize a 3-1 lead during singles. After that, though, the Waves pulled out a two-set victory at No. 6 singles and a three-set victory at No. 1 singles, leaving Doumbia and Llompart. The pair endured a final set alone after splitting two tiebreaks, the second of which started after Doumbia had fought off a match point.
With a packed grandstand roaring or groaning on seemingly each pressure-packed point, Doumbia had break points in three different games during the third set. He failed to convert all of them, and Llompart got his break to go up 3-2.
“I was fighting as hard as I could in the third (set),” said Doumbia, who said he began cramping in the second set. “I just kept trying, kept trying. I had many opportunities, but I didn’t find a way through. I’m really disappointed, but life will go on.”
Puerto Rican Llompart served out Frenchman Doumbia for a 18th consecutive singles victory, playing hero with a hot hand for a hot team.
“In a singles tournament or something like that, maybe I couldn’t pull this match through,” Llompart said. “But I had to do it for the Waves. I care for my teammates too much to let them down, so they got me through this one. … This is No. 1 (in my career). I’ve played Davis Cup before. I’ve won at home, but there’s nothing like what happened today out there.”
After the final point, Llompart slung aside his racquet and ran to teammates, who hoisted him in the air in jubilation.
It was a stark contract to Doumbia, who slunk to a court-side seat. He was also surrounded by teammates, this time in consolation.
“They were proud of me,” Doumbia said, “and proud of the way I fought.”
It was shades of 2006 for Diaz and Pepperdine coach Adam Steinberg, considering the Waves beat a 30-0, John Isner-led Bulldogs team that year in the national championship match.
“It feels as good,” Steinberg said. “It really does.”
Doumbia’s singles defeat was the final one for Georgia on Sunday, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. He and Hernus Pieters (who also lost No. 6 singles) suffered an 8-1 setback at No. 1 doubles, which proved costly when KU Singh and Wil Spencer lost 9-7 at No. 3 to send the doubles point to Pepperdine.
“That doubles point, I thought, was so big, because it kind of was like, ‘Wow, we can really do this,’” Steinberg said. “It made a believer out of everybody.”
Georgia’s singles success came at No. 2 from KU Singh, No. 4 from Ignacio Taboada and at No. 5, where freshman Nathan Pasha lost the first set and pulled out a spirited 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory that put the Bulldogs on the cusp of survival.
But there were just too many opportunities that went begging. UGA’s Wil Spencer, while fighting stomach issues he said were caused by too many salt talents he ingested, fought back to force a third set at No. 1 singles.
Up 30-0 at 3-4 in the third set on Pepperdine’s serve, Spencer wound up losing the game. After fighting off four match points, Spencer lost the set, 6-4, to leave Doumbia alone on court No. 3 to decide a 3-3 score.
“I was up 30-0 and think I played a couple of loose points,” Spencer said. “I mean, he played well. He stayed calm. He was composed. I had a lot of chances in the third set, and he came up big. I think I should have played a little bit bigger.”
Like Doumbia and Taboada, Spencer was a senior playing his final UGA team match.
“We want to win,” Spencer said. “That’s what it comes down to, for so many different reasons. I’ve had an unbelievable experience, and I’ll cherish it.
“It’s just painful right now.”
PEPPERDINE 4, GEORGIA 3
1. #15 Alex Llompart/Finn Tearney (PEPPERDINE) def. Sadio Doumbia/Hernus Pieters (UGA), 8-1
2. #41 Nathan Pasha/Ignacio Taboada (UGA) def. Sebastian Fanselow/Jenson Turner (PEPPERDINE), 8-5
3. Hugh Clarke/David Sofaer (PEPPERDINE) def. KU Singh/Wil Spencer (UGA), 9-7
1. #8 Sebastian Fanselow (PEPPERDINE) def. #11 Wil Spencer (UGA), 6-3, 3-6, 6-4
2. #19 KU Singh (UGA) def. #30 Finn Tearney (PEPPERDINE), 7-6 (3), 6-2
3. Alex Llompart (PEPPERDINE) def. #32 Sadio Doumbia (UGA), 7-6 (2), 6-7 (2), 6-4
4. #52 Ignacio Taboada (UGA) def. #109 Mousheg Hovhannisyan (PEPPERDINE), 6-1, 6-3
5. Nathan Pasha (UGA) def. Hugh Clarke (PEPPERDINE), 4-6, 6-3, 6-1
6. Jenson Turner (PEPPERDINE) def. #60 Hernus Pieters (UGA), 6-4, 7-6 (4)
Order of Finish
Doubles (1, 2, 3)
Singles (4, 2, 5, 6, 1, 3*)