GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The No. 2 Florida Gators finished their season undefeated at home and are heading to the Elite Eight for the fourth-straight year after sweeping No. 15 North Carolina, 4-0, on Friday night at the Alfred A. Ring Tennis Complex.
For the 21st match in a row, the Gators (26-2) prevailed in doubles. North Carolina (18-9) took the slight edge after posting a 6-2 win at court two, but Florida would come back to win the next two matches and claim the doubles point.
The first doubles contest for the Gators was won by the No. 5-ranked duo of Ben Shelton and Sam Riffice in a hard-fought match against No. 16-ranked Brian Cernoch and Mac Kiger. The Florida tandem trailed, 2-1, early on but was able to make a comeback that put them up 3-2. They held the lead the remainder of the match and picked up their 10th win, 6-4, over a nationally-ranked opponent.
All eyes moved to court three as Duarte Vale and Nate Bonetto earned the decisive win for the Gators over Henry Lieberman and Benjamin Sigouin. The Gators duo went down 4-5, then 5-6, before coming back and forcing a tiebreak. Both teams would go back-and-forth with their points until the Vale/Bonetto pairing overtook the Tar Heels duo with a 7-6 (2) win to give the Gators a 1-0 lead heading into singles play.
The Orange & Blue quickly extended their lead after No. 2 Shelton defeated Cernoch in straight sets, 6-0, 6-1. This marks the Gainesville native's 21st win against a ranked opponent as picked up his 20th dual win of the season.
The Gators went up 3-0 when No. 119 Josh Goodger came up big on court six with a straight-set win, 6-1, 6-2. The senior only gave up three games to Lieberman in his fifth-straight singles win.
The night ended when No. 115 Vale clinched his team-leading seventh match of the year on court three. In the first set, the senior captain led Kiger the whole time for a 6-4 win, however, the second set did not come as easy. Vale took an early 4-1 advantage, but the opposing senior quickly cut into the lead, 4-3. The remainder of the match was a constant back-and-forth leading to a tiebreaker that was won by Vale, 7-6 (3).
This will be Florida's fifth appearance in the elite eight since 2012 when they take on No. 7 Virginia on May 19 in Champaign, Ill.
Head Coach Bryan Shelton
Opening statement... "It was a fantastic night. It was a great match against UNC - my hat's off to Sam Paul, his staff and his players. They really came out and pushed us hard tonight. The score doesn't reflect just how tough that match was.
"The doubles point was one of the most fun doubles points I've been a part of... To see our guys under pressure, see them enjoying the moments out there and executing in the biggest moments of the match to give us that 1-0 lead. And then in singles, our goal is always to be super competitive from one end of the facility to the other end. I think we really did a great job of that tonight. To be able to play in front of our fans, for them to stick around after a couple hour rain delay, and then to look up and still see so many Gators there supporting us, says a lot about our community here in Gainesville and the University of Florida.
"I'm just really proud that we can finish out our home campaign with a win tonight which advances us to the final eight. So, I'm really proud of our guys. We had a lot of seniors out there playing their last match with the Gators at home. I'm just really proud of what they've done throughout their careers. Then, the freshman over here [Nate Bonetto]... I'm just really proud of him as well. He is going to be the future of this program moving forward and he showed some real class out there tonight. I'm just super, super proud of him and the whole team, it was a team effort tonight."
On Duarte Vale... "Yeah I mean Duarte, he's a winner. First and foremost, he's somebody of super-high character. Nate talked about it, I talk about it all the time. To have a leader like that, one of our captains who backs up his talk. He's not afraid to say things and to challenge everybody to be better, but he first looks in the mirror and challenges himself and you can hear it. The fans probably can't hear him when he's playing the match, but he's got this dialogue that just keeps going on and on and on... He's like, 'That's okay. I love it. That's okay. I'm going to get the next one. That's okay, just keep pushing. Let's go, you got this.'
"He's constantly telling himself what he can do, not what he can't do. I think that when you're positive like that and you work the way that he works, you know that in the long run, things will eventually work out and a tennis match in singles is more of a long-distance race than it is a sprint. I think he really understands that and he's willing to go the distance no matter how long it takes. That willingness to go the distance, to endure some pain, to deal with some adversity, he gets it and that's what's going to make him great. He just embraces those moments. When he had opportunities to close it out tonight and he didn't, that can break some people, but it's not going to break Duarte. I've seen it time and time again over the last four or five years, him in that position. Freshman year, a lot times he didn't come through, and we used to always say, 'Don't worry, you're going to have other opportunities, plenty more.' And since then, he's had plenty. I'm telling you my money is on this guy every time. If it's tight, if there's adversity, if it's a tough match, this guy's going to come through most of the time."
Freshman Nate Bonetto On staying prepared after a weather delay... "Yeah, I mean the weather delays are definitely difficult just because you don't really know when you're going to play and you're just kind of sitting in the locker room. I think as a team, we usually do a pretty good job of trying to stay locked in and trying to keep things light and fun in the locker room so that when we eventually do go out on the court, we're ready, we're excited and we're still motivated. I think today we did a really good job of that, maybe better than we've done in the past. I felt like we came out with a ton of energy and yeah, it's tricky to have to deal with the delay, but I think we did a really good job of mentally preparing and being ready when we got on the court."
On what it means being on an experienced team... "Yeah, it's so cool. Getting to be on this team with all these guys who have so many years of experience, I've learned so much in this year and I've been so fortunate to get to play with Duarte. He's helped me a lot and helped me grow a lot as a person and as a doubles player. I feel really fortunate that I've gotten to spend this year with these guys and it's really cool that they've were able to end it this way."
1. #2 Ben Shelton (UF) def. #33 Brian Cernoch (NC), 6-0, 6-1
2. #28 Sam Riffice (UF) vs. Benjamin Sigouin (NC), 7-5, 5-4, unfinished
3. #115 Duarte Vale (UF) def. Mac Kiger (NC), 6-4, 7-6 (7-3)
4. #117 Andy Andrade (UF) vs. Logan Zapp (NC), 6-7 (3-7), 4-4, unfinished
5. Mattias Siimar (UF) vs. Chris Li (NC), 6-7 (5-7), 5-4, unfinished
6. #119 Josh Goodger (UF) def. Henry Lieberman (NC), 6-1, 6-2
Order of Finish: 1, 6, 3
1. #5 Sam Riffice/Ben Shelton (UF) def. #16 Brian Cernoch/Mac Kiger (NC), 6-4
2. Casey Kania/Logan Zapp (NC) def. #65 Andy Andrade/Mattias Siimar (UF), 6-2
3. Nate Bonetto/Duarte Vale (UF) def. Henry Lieberman/Benjamin Sigouin (NC), 7-6 (7-2)
Order of Finish: 2, 1, 3
This will be Florida's fifth appearance in the Elite Eight since 2012 when they take on No. 7 Virginia on May 19 in Champaign, Ill.