They needed to be flawless at the bottom three positions in the six-team singles lineup. They weren't.
They needed either of their marquee players at one or two to win their singles match. They didn't.
They needed to win the doubles point, because they were 20-0 this spring when that happens and 100-4 since 2002 when winning that all-important point.
OK, so they did that. Unfortunately the trend of victories that normally follow didn't this time around as Illinois, the tenth seed, upset the seventh-seeded Rebels 4-3 here at the NCAA Championships. Illinois heads to the Elite Eight to face fellow Big Ten member Ohio State. The Buckeyes, seeded second, beat 15th-seeded LSU on opening day.
Ole Miss veteran head coach Billy Chadwick, as disappointed as he was in the outcome, tried to keep things in perspective moments after the emotional match had ended.
"It was a great college match, and it went down to the very last match and the very last set between two of the best players in college tennis," he said.
The match he was referring to was the one between the Rebels' No. 1 player, Erling Tveit, and the No. 1 Illini, Kevin Anderson, both among the nation's top 10 players.
The first two sets were decided in tiebreakers. Tveit won the first 7-6; Anderson the second 7-6.
As the two played what became the proverbial "last match on," it looked like this one might just come down to which player flinched first. In this case, who would be the player to lose his serve?
Unfortunately that was the Rebels' Tveit, and it came as the third set was tied 3-3 and with the big, strong Norwegian serving.
Tveit's game is based on his serve. It's perhaps his strongest point. But he got down 0-40 in a hurry as his serve appeared to leave him for just the briefest of moments. He got it back quickly enough to tie the game 40-40. Anderson took the next two points but all the momentum.
"The difference in that great match was that Kevin served better than Erling in the third set," Chadwick said.
That was enough evaluation of this one. Anderson had the opening he needed and would win out to take the match and send the Illini on to Saturday and the Rebels packing.
"I thought we started the match off great taking the doubles point," Chadwick said.
Indeed the Rebs did. Winning doubles both at No. 1 (Tveit, Eric Claesson) and No. 3 (Jakob Klaeson, Robbye Poole) by 8-5 counts, Ole Miss carried a lot of momentum into singles play.
"We were looking at being able to take these guys at four, five, and six singles," Chadwick said.
That's where the gameplan took its first hit. Jonas Berg, undefeated this spring at 20-0, lost at No. 5 by margins of 6-2, 7-6 (11-9 in the tiebreaker).
"He started slow and made some uncharacteristic mistakes," said Ole Miss assistant coach Toby Hansson of Berg at No. 5. "He started playing a lot better in the second set, and he really had some opportunities to win that second set."
But the loss at No. 5 pulled Illinois into a tie at 3-3. All eyes shifted to court one and the battle between two of the heavyweights of college tennis.
Poole's win at No. 4 singles had given Ole Miss a 2-0 lead. At No. 3 singles, Matthias Wellermann lost and the overall match score was 2-1 Rebs at that point.
Kalle Norberg gave Ole Miss a 3-1 lead by winning at No. 6 singles. Claesson, the Rebs' lone senior, lost at No. 2 singles to cut the UM lead to 3-2.
Chadwick said he played Wellermann, who has battled back problems all season, at three singles instead of Klaeson at six and then moving each player down a spot because he liked the matchups. He said Wellermann was fit to play singles, and he thought Berg was a good match for GD Jones at No. 5 singles. Jones, who had been injured, was a former No. 1 singles player for the Illini and a quality player.
The Illini gained momentum with the win at five singles and carried that over into the court one battle to victory.
"The momentum swing for our team actually came six weeks ago when we lost to Ohio State," said Illinois head coach Brad Dancer. "Since that day, our guys have believed in themselves."
The Rebels believed in themselves all season. But today, the opposition was just a bit better when all was said and done.
"We're extremely disappointed because we had our sights set higher," Chadwick said. "But I'm very proud of the guys. It was another great season."
Tennis Rebs upset by Illinois in Athens
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