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Wild Comeback Propels UNM to Championship Match

by Frank Mercogliano

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — UNM’s thorn in their side, the Utah State Aggies, finally were vanquished as UNM came back from a 3-1 deficit to take down the team that had won three in a row against them, two this year, and the Lobos advanced to the Mountain West title match, where they will face either top-seeded Nevada or No. 4 San Diego State at 1 p.m. Sunday at Air Force.  An NCAA Tournament berth awaits the winner of Sunday’s match.

For some reason, New Mexico’s men’s tennis team had a devil of time with Utah State this year, losing 4-1 in February after winning the doubles point and then just last Saturday 4-3.  In that one, UNM again won the doubles point and were up 3-0 but couldn’t close the deal.  That included missing on two match points in a tiebreak up 6-4 in which UNM double-faulted.  With that knowledge, losing the doubles point wasn’t probably in the game plan, but that’s exactly what happened.

Rafael Abdulsalam and Georgio Samaha won 6-1 at No. 3 doubles over Felipe Acosta and Sergi Mico Fennolar, but that was all UNM got.  Both teams of Arda Azkara and Nicolas Prieto and Alex Maggs and Jan Pucalka lost 6-4 to put Utah State up 1-0.  The Aggies would eventually push to a 2-0 and 3-1 lead.  David Cierny of Utah State, who clinched the 4-3 win last Saturday, won handily at No. 2 6-2, 6-1 over Abdulsalam to make it 2-0, but Aram Noroozian, who is playing as well as anyone in the league, won again at No. 3, winning 6-4, 6-1 over Mico Fennolar.  However, UNM fell behind 3-1 when Alex Maggs at No. 5 succumbed 6-3, 6-2, and suddenly Utah State was one win away from a title date.

New Mexico, which has lost three Mountain West heartbreakers and a few other close calls over the season, finally got one to fall their way.  Needing three wins, they got all three, two from players who lost a week ago.  First it was Samaha, winning in three sets over Javier Ruiz 6-2, 4-6, 6-2.  Samaha, who a week ago double faulted with a chance to clinch the match for UNM, was brilliant on his serve, hitting 85% of his first serves over the last two sets.  His forehand winner on serve ended his match, giving UNM one point back.

Pucalka had a shot at tying the match, but he twice missed on match points at 5-3 and 5-4 and after getting broken in the 10th game, it was 5-5.  Azkara at No. 1 won his opening set 7-6 (7-1) and then went to a tiebreaker again.  He took a 5-4 lead, pushed it to 6-4 when Bodin Zarkovic hit long.  Azkara couldn’t put a winner away on his first match point, but his screamer down the line tied the match up at 3-3 at almost the same time that Pucalka broke Acosta, putting him up 6-5 and serving.

With everyone moving to that court, Pucalka put on a show, with three straight aces that weren’t even touched to go up 40-love and give him four match points.  He nearly ended it on the first one, his attempt to cross up Acosta just clipping the net.  But his next serve was barely returned by Acosta, and his forehand shot was sent scurrying into the net.  Pucalka whipped around, racquet in the air and collapsed, soon at the bottom of a massive dogpile of happy Lobos.

Now after vanquishing one team that beat them in the regular season, UNM will face another in either Nevada or San Diego State on Sunday at 1 p.m.  New Mexico moved to 11-12 on the season while Utah State also ended the year at 11-12.