ATHENS, Ga. — Southern California remains the NCAA men’s tennis national champion.
Tennessee remains in search of the elusive top prize.
To become the new king you have to vanquish the old king and the Vols fell short Tuesday night, losing 4-2 at Henry Feild Stadium.
Two excellent teams went at each other before a crowd of 1,198 and an ESPNU television audience.
Maybe experience on the big stage was the difference. At least that’s what Tennessee came away thinking after only its second loss in 33 matches this season.
“I think they got nervous tonight on a stage where I needed to be able to calm those nerves and turn them around,’’ said coach Sam Winterbotham, “and I don’t think I was able to do that.
“I’ll certainly learn from that.’’
The Vols took the doubles point but the defending champs (25-3) were too strong in singles.
Freshman Ryhne Williams was the only UT player who held his court, recovering from a slow start to win 1-6, 6-2, 6-1 on Court 3.
“It was a wonderful experience,’’ said Williams, who was the only Vol named to the All-Tournament singles squad.
Senior Matt Brewer was ahead 5-3 in the third set on Court 5, but Southern Cal clinched the match on Court 4 before he could record a third Tennessee point.
Steve Johnson beat Boris Conkic, 6-3, 6-2, on Court 2. Robert Farah took down No. 1-ranked John-Patrick Smith on Court 1, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4.
On Court 6, Peter Lucassen downed Matteo Fago, 6-3, 6-4, Fago’s first loss at No. 6 all season.
The clincher came at 4. Freshman Tennys Sandgren won the first set on a tiebreaker, but Southern Cal’s Daniel Nguyen won 12 of the final 13 games, including 6-0 in the third set.
Nguyen was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after ending Sandgren’s 15-match win streak.
“Tennys didn’t let us down,’’ Winterbotham said. “The level of play (on that court) was incredible.
“Daniel Nguyen was probably their strongest point and we knew that. He could play No. 1 on most teams.’’
UT got off to a promising start.
Fago and Ed Jones clinched the doubles point at 8-6 and were named to the All-Tournament team.
Smith and Davey Sandgren had earlier won 8-6 over the No. 2-ranked team of Farah and Johnson.
The momentum didn’t translate to singles.
Smith, who had lost in singles Monday night in the semifinal win over Georgia, admitted nerves played a role.
“I’m pretty disappointed in myself,’’ the junior from Australia said. “Once we got to Athens, I didn’t really play the way I’d been playing all season.
“It kind of really hit me, the severity of the moment.
“Definitely, next year I’m not going to let this happen again.’’
The title is Southern Cal’s sixth of the NCAA era, which began in 1977. The Trojans had 12 championships prior to that.
Tennessee is still looking for its first.
The previous near-misses were in 1990, when Stanford spoiled a perfect UT season in the title match, and in 2001, when Tennessee lost here to Georgia before a partisan Bulldog crowd.
The Vols don’t plan on giving up.
They return the bulk of this year’s squad and have at least one outstanding incoming player, Prajnesh Gunneswaran.
“As a team,’’ Winterbotham said, “experiences like this are invaluable.
“The majority of our team is returning. If we find ourselves in the same position next year, I’ll be able to handle it better and I think the players will be able to handle it a little better.’’