COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Freshman Luis Valero rallied back from the brink to deliver the first SEC Tournament victory of his young career Thursday. Valero saved one match point in the third set and reeled the final five games on court 4 to clinch the Vols' 4-3 win over Alabama in the second round of the SEC Men's Tennis Championships at Texas A&M.
Tennessee (14-11) now faces top-seeded Georgia in the quarterfinals. Because storms are again in the forecast, the match time has been moved up to noon Eastern/11 a.m. Central.
With all eyes on his court during the final hour of play, Valero fell behind 2-5 in the third set to Alabama senior Stuart Kenyon. Valero, with his teammates cheering him from neighboring court No. 6, did not lose focus in the closing games.
Valero held serve at 2-5 en route to winning the final five games. He saved a match point with a service winner at 4-5, broke Kenyon's serve a second time and served out the 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5 victory.
"Luis been doing a great job for us all year," Tennessee head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "No one can prepare for that moment. You have to go in and see what you are made of. He just had faith that he was going to give us everything he had in that moment and he did."
Valero became the hero at the end, but the Vols' first two singles points came from their most reliable sources over the last four years: seniors Mikelis Libietis and Hunter Reese at the top of the lineup.
Reese was quickly off the court with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 115 Korey Lovett on court 2. Libietis followed minutes later with a 6-2, 6-4 win against Becker O'Shaughnessey to put Tennessee up 3-0.
"Mikelis and Hunter were phenomenal today," Winterbotham said. "That one-two punch, that commitment, was there for everybody to see. I'm incredibly proud of those guys."
Though Tennessee led 3-0, Alabama had won the first sets on the four remaining courts and had momentum. The Crimson Tide eventually tied up the match 3-3 with straight-set wins on three courts.
Valero had led Kenyon twice in the first set before the Alabama senior won the set in a tiebreaker. Valero stormed back in the second set to take a 5-2 lead before eventually serving out the second set at 6-4. By that point, he was the final match left on court.
The temperatures were in the 80s most of the match and fatigue started taking its toll in the third set. After Valero staved off match point to tie the set at 5-5, Kenyon double faulted twice and Valero forced an error on deciding point to take a 6-5 lead.
Valero showed no nerves in the final service game, holding a love before celebrating with teammates on the court.
"Alabama deserves a tremendous amount of credit for how they competed all day," Winterbotham said. "That was one of the toughest matches we've been in all year."
Notes: The Vols have now played six 4-3 matches this season, winning four of them. In each victory, the Vols have had a different player clinch the match: Jones (Troy), Schipanski (Georgia Tech), Andrew Dromsky (Kentucky) and now Valero today against Alabama ... Reese's singles win was the 90th of his career ... Reese and Libietis' doubles win was their 20th of the season, snapping a rare two-match losing streak ... Valero also had a comeback in doubles. He and Jack Schipanski rallied from a break down to win 7-5 on court 3. ... Valero has 18 wins this year, the second-most to Libietis, who is 23-3.