It wasn't an auspicious start for the Trojans — but, this time, it didn't matter.
The USC men's tennis team lost the doubles point in Tuesday's NCAA title game against Tennessee, only the fourth such time the Trojans did so this season.
The previous three matches? All losses, USC's only three of the season. But the Trojans rallied in singles Tuesday, getting key victories from Robert Farah, Steve Johnson and Peter Lucassen and the title-clinching victory from Daniel Nguyen to win their second straight national title, 4-2 over the Volunteers.
"In between singles and doubles, we decided we had to do it the hard way," Johnson said by phone Tuesday night from Athens, Ga. "And we all just pulled together. There was never an easy road for us tonight."
When the doubles pairings of Farah/Johnson and Jason McNaughton/Jaak Poldma fell to the Volunteers, Tennessee took an early 1-0 lead. Johnson took home the first singles win for USC at the No. 2 spot, toppling Tennessee's Boris Conkic in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2. Then, Poldma lost on the No. 3 singles court to give back the lead to Tennessee.
From there, Farah used a crucial tiebreaker win in his first set and ferocious returns to upset national No. 1 player J.P. Smith and Lucassen earned a win as the Trojans took a 3-2 lead. But the sophomore Nguyen became the real hero when he rallied back from a first-set loss to beat Tennessee's Tennys Sandgren and clinch the match for the Trojans, 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-0.
After the match, Nguyen was named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player, completing a meteoric rise for the Santa Barbara native as he climbed away from in and out of the lineup in his freshman season to a key part of the Trojans' national championship run.
"It’s just unbelievable the strides he has made since last year," Johnson said of Nguyen. "We all knew he would come through for us."
Now, both Johnson and Farah will attempt to take the momentum from Tuesday's victory and keep it going for the NCAA individual championships that begin Wednesday. Both players are scheduled for singles matches on Wednesday evening.
"We’re both pretty emotionally spent," Johnson said. "It’s a quick turnaround, but we’re prepared."