OXFORD, Miss. - Ole Miss men's tennis sophomore Johan Backstrom came up huge Sunday, winning 6-3 in the third at No. 5 singles to clinch a 4-2 victory against Michigan to send the Rebels to the Sweet Sixteen.
It marks the 16th Sweet Sixteen appearance for the Rebels and first since 2009. Michigan ends its season at 18-8. The Rebels will face UCLA Friday at 11 a.m. CT in Athens, Ga.
With the Rebels leading 3-2 and two matches remaining, Backstrom delivered the goods when his teamed needed him. He won the first set against UM's Barrett Franks, 6-3, but lost the second 6-3. At 3-1 the Swede gained a break to go up 4-1. All he had to do then was hold serve twice, and on match point he aced Franks.
The Rebels came into the weekend hosting for the time since 2008 and excited to show off the newly renovated Palmer/Salloum Tennis Center. However, Mother Nature had other ideas. In addition to Saturday's match vs. Binghamton, Sunday's match against Michigan started outside before being forced indoors to the Gillom Sports Center due to rain.
Ole Miss won a tight doubles point to take the early 1-0 lead and that proved to be the difference in the match. The Wolverines won 8-5 at No. 3 doubles. Nik Scholtz and Jonas Lutjen, ranked No. 13 nationally, trailed 26th-ranked Evan King and Shaun Bernstein 5-2 before winning six of the next seven games to take it 8-6. On court two, the twins, Chris Thiemann and Marcel Thiemann, were locked in a tight battle with UM's Barrett Franks and Alex Buzzi. At 7-7, the 17th-ranked Rebel duo broke and served it out to clinch the point.
Lutjen carried the momentum of doubles over into his singles match at No. 3, quickly downing Bernstein 6-2, 6-2 to give the Rebels a 2-0 lead.
Michigan would tie it up with wins on courts one and two. Alex Petrone defeated senior Marcel Thiemann 6-4, 6-4 to make it 2-1. In a battle between the SEC Freshman of the Year, Scholtz, and the Big Ten Player of the Year, King, the Wolverine gained one break in each set to come out on top 6-4, 6-3 and even the overall score.
Fans could sense the tension building, but with three matches left, the Rebels were able to win two first sets in those. Kallberg defeated Michael Zhu 6-4, 7-5 to put Ole Miss within one (3-2), setting up Backstrom's match-clinching win.
"We did a really good job of digging down deep and finding a way to get the doubles point, and then Jonas Lutjen led us off in singles. It was a gutsy performance by the freshman, Kallberg. That match was back and forth, and he did a good job of closing it out in two sets."
The Rebels will face UCLA in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, marking the third time in four years for them to face the Bruins in the NCAA Championships. In 2009, the Rebels lost a heartbreaker to UCLA in the quarterfinals and then again last year in the second round in Los Angeles.
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