By losing the doubles point, Kentucky's tennis team faced the daunting challenge of needing to win four of six singles matches. The odds of beating Clemson Saturday in the NCAA Tournament second round lengthened significantly when UK's top two singles players also lost.
The chances of ultimately winning after the top guns had been muffled? "I'm sure it's in the one or two percentile," Kentucky Coach Cedric Kauffmann said.
The nadir for Kentucky in this four-hour melodrama came in the form of a 3-1 deficit in the best of seven. Then Kevin Lai dropped the first set in what both teams considered the decisive match.
That only added to the foreboding feeling already in evidence inside UK's Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center. Kentucky's star player, senior Tom Jomby, injured his left foot or ankle four games into his singles match and had to concede.
"He came to the chair and said, 'Listen, I just felt something snap,'" Kauffmann said. "I thought we lost some air when we saw Tom get hurt."
That Kentucky rallied to a 4-3 victory thrilled a loudly partisan crowd of 246, advanced the Cats to the Sweet 16 round for a school record fifth straight year and validated, if in a painfully poignant way, Clemson Coach Chuck McCuen's appreciation for tennis.
"That's what makes this game so great," he said. "There's no clock, and it never stops. As long as you have heart and you're willing to compete at your highest level, you'll always have a chance."
Kauffmann's strategy for a comeback involved each player concentrating on his individual match rather than contemplate the loss in doubles, the defeats in the top two singles matches or Jomby's injury. The UK coach said he could not say with certainty the extent of Jomby's injury for a day or two or whether the star can play this week in Athens, Ga., site of the Sweet 16. Jomby needed help from two teammates to join the celebration after UK won.
"Just take care of your court," Kauffmann said he told his players. "We have the points available to us to get to four."
Beck Pennington, a sophomore from Bowling Green, got the Kentucky rally started by winning the No. 3 singles 7-5, 6-3. Jerry Lopez, a freshman from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, won the No. 4 singles 7-5, 6-1.
Kentucky considered the last match — senior Grant Roberts against Brent Lett, a 5-7, 137-pound freshman — a given. Roberts, a product of Tates Creek High School, won the clinching match against Virginia last year to advance UK to the Sweet 16.
"We trust Grant with our lives," Kauffmann said.
That meant Kentucky's fate this day rested with Lai (pronounced Lie). A 5-9 sophomore from Taiwan, Lai plays No. 5 singles, but normally takes more bows partnering with Jomby, who is almost a foot taller, on UK's 31st-ranked doubles team.
Because Jomby's injury prematurely ended the No. 1 singles match, Lai faced Clemson sophomore Luke Johnson on the court closest to the bleachers inside rather than on the customary outlying outdoor court designated for teams' No. 5 players.
That gave the Lai-Johnson match plenty of atmospherics. Clemson had a small, but raucous group of fans. "Quite annoying," Lai said.
But Kentucky fans drowned them out by rhythmically stomping their feet on the 10 rows of medal bleachers after each point Lai won. Some women joined the chorus by ping-ping-pinging their rings on the bleachers. Lai heard encouraging words, while the UK fans fed Johnson seeds of doubt.
"We'll call them the seventh man," Kauffmann said of the fans. "They helped us go through. I want to thank them. I think they almost broke the bleachers."
As if purposefully heightening the drama, Lai lost the first set 4-6.
"I should have won the first set, to be honest," he said. "It's not really about tennis today for me. It's about mental toughness. If I want to stay in the play or just kind of let it go."
Kauffmann also thought Lai could have reduced everyone's stress by winning the first set. "At times he gave us some heart attacks because he didn't listen," the UK coach said.
Lai won the next two sets 6-3, 6-4. That enabled Kentucky and Clemson players to gather on opposite sides to watch Roberts complete the comeback with an anticlimactic 6-2, 6-1 victory over Lett.
"It was a blast," the magnanimous Clemson coach said of the unfolding athletic drama. "We play for that. I love the Kentucky crowd. I love the intensity. I love the passion for their players and their school.
"And I hope we can emulate that same kind of environment in the future."