Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Florida 4, Texas 0: Gritty Longhorns’ impressive season comes to end in NCAA semifinals

Texas finishes the year 24-6 even though ‘One hundred percent, I believed we could win this match’

Texas sophomore Eliot Spizzirri was a driving force for the fourth-ranked Longhorns all season they reached the NCAA national semifinals in Orlando, Fla.

When Texas needed to dig deep against South Carolina, the Longhorns came out swinging. In dire straits against USC, Texas ran to daylight as if it were fourth-and-5.

The reigning NCAA men’s tennis champions found themselves up against it Friday night against No. 1 Florida. Was there any magic left?

“They gave me plenty of reason to believe we could take it one step further,” Texas coach Bruce Berque said late Friday. “I’d be idiotic to think that this team didn’t have a chance against anyone they played. So I definitely thought we had a chance.”

Fueled by a thumping, Gator-chomping crowd, Florida took the doubles point and then took down fourth-ranked Texas 4-0 in the NCAA national semifinals at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. A stunning postseason run full of pulse-pounding tennis was abruptly over as the Longhorns finished the year 24-6.

More:Acting as a ‘heat-seeking missile,’ Texas women dominate N.C. State in NCAA tennis

“One hundred percent, I believed we could win this match,” UT’s top singles player, Eliot Spizzirri, said. “The doubles point was crucial. We’ve come back and won plenty of huge matches against great teams after losing the doubles point. 

Texas sophomore Siem Woldeab celebrates during his doubles match with Eliot Spizzirri against Florida on Friday night.

“So, yeah, it wasn’t the end of the world but certainly would have helped,” he added. “But I thought, you know, we definitely had a chance.”

UT football coach Steve Sarkisian gave the Horns an inspirational pep talk via Zoom on Friday morning. Sophomore Cleeve Harper showed up at the tennis center wearing an All Gas No Brakes hat. “I’ve got to get me one of those!” Tennis Channel announcer Sam Gore said, taking a fancy to Sarkisian’s signature phrase.

A Texas team that had an excellent 10-1 record in one-point matches this season wouldn’t go down easily.

The Horns shook off the doubles loss and focused on singles play. Evin McDonald won his first set on court six, but the Gators were circling everywhere else. 

Florida’s Ben Shelton closed out a 6-3, 6-0 win over UT’s Chih Chi Huang on court five to give the Gators a 2-0 lead. Meanwhile, there was plenty of burnt orange hope.

Spizzirri smashed a ball down the line for a tiebreaker point in a seesaw first set against Florida’s Duarte Vale. It was tied 3-3 at that point as both players were hammering home quality shots. Vale won the first set 6-4, but Spizzirri was leading 6-5 in the second. 

UT’s Micah Braswell battled out of a 2-5 hole to win his first set 7-6 on court two. The freshman from Sarasota, Fla., had a slight home-court advantage, too, just like the crew from Gainesville.

Texas freshman Micah Braswell battled out of a 2-5 hole to win his first set 7-6 Friday.

Maybe a short rain delay would change up the Horns’ mojo. Unfortunately, no. When play resumed, Florida moved another step closer as Blaise Bicknell defeated Harper 6-1, 7-5 on court four. Then Andy Andrade closed out a 6-3, 7-5 win over UT’s Siem Woldeab.

“I think we have a really special team, a special program,” Florida coach Bryan Shelton said. “I’m just thankful to a lot of people along the way who have guided us, guided me. We’ve got some great, great coaches and a lot of good people and a lot of good support.”

Top-ranked Florida will face second-ranked Baylor for the men’s national championship Saturday night in Orlando.

“Florida was too good today,” Spizzirri said. “At the start of the season, there were a lot of people predicting that we were going to finish, I think, fourth in the conference. Just a lot of people didn’t think we’re going to have the season we had. So I’m just really happy.”

Spizzirri said several former Texas players were texting him supportive messages the last few days as UT marched forward in the NCAAs.

Texas sophomore Cleeve Harper keeps his eyes on the ball during his singles match against Florida on Friday.

“I haven’t totally reflected and got in a moment to regather myself since the loss,” Spizzirri said, “but I can say right now I’m pretty proud of the effort we all put in.”

For Berque, this season is another major bullet point on his lengthy and distinguished résumé. He took over in 2019 when the Horns were thrown into chaos over coach Michael Center’s abrupt dismissal. All Berque did was lead the Horns to the national championship.

Most of that team is long gone, but the banner, rings and memories remain. The 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic. Thus, Texas came into the 2021 spring season still holding serve as the top dog, roster churn or not.

“Overall, they were pretty reachable on the court and coachable, and I think that had a lot to do with it,” Berque said. “I think the second thing is they really like each other. And it’s cliché, but they care about each other a lot.

“Every player on our team found a way to win a decisive match at some point,” Berque added. “Yeah, I’d say that’s probably the recipe, and hopefully we can keep that going, maybe even find a way to beat some teams a little more decisively next year.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.