USC earns date with Vols for title

ATHENS, Ga. -- Southern California's reward for beating the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division I tennis tournament is a championship matchup against the team Trojans coach Peter Smith says is the real favorite.

USC, the defending champion and No. 5 seed, beat top-seeded Virginia 4-2 in the semifinals on Monday and will face No. 2 seed Tennessee for the championship on Tuesday. Tennessee beat host Georgia 4-1.

Smith said he picked the Vols (31-1) before the tournament.

"I thought from the get-go, Tennessee was the team to beat in this tournament," Smith said. "I think they've had the best outdoor season. They've had the toughest schedule and they're really proved themselves. ... To me they're very, very good. They've got it all."

Tennessee coach Sam Winterbotham said USC has one big edge: The Trojans (24-3) won last year's tournament.

"I think they've been favorites in my mind the whole year," Winterbotham said of USC. "They are the returning NCAA champions with nearly everybody back."

Meanwhile, Florida will face Stanford in the women's final on Tuesday. Florida beat North Carolina 4-0. Stanford beat Notre Dame 4-1.

The Cardinal, which won four straight singles matches after losing the doubles point, will be playing for its 16th championship.

"We're very thrilled to be back in the finals," said Stanford coach Lele Forood. "I have to give Notre Dame credit because they really took it to us in doubles, but we knew it was far from over. The top of our lineup in singles was outstanding today."

Florida has won four women's titles, most recently in 2003. Stanford has won five of the last nine titles, including three straight from 2004-06.

With the loss to USC, Virginia (39-2) saw its 36-match winning streak end. The loss left coach Brian Boland visibly dejected.

"We've worked very hard to get to this point," Boland said. "Although I thought we were able to respond well, USC played a great match. They're a very good team and they beat us today. We left it all out on the court."

When asked if he could take anything positive from advancing to the semifinals, Boland said "No, not right now."

USC clinched the win at No. 4 singles. Daniel Nguyen beat Virginia's Drew Courtney 7-6 (9), 6-4.

"Daniel Nguyen played about as good a tiebreaker as I've seen all season," Smith said of Nguyen's first set. "That was gigantic. Then he got a break to win the match for us. It was a big match."

Smith was incredulous when Nguyen called the win "definitely the highlight of my tennis career."

"What are you talking about?" Smith demanded. "... C'mon, tomorrow is the highlight, OK? Say it's the second."

"It's the second," Nguyen quickly added.

Smith said USC's tennis tradition was not a factor last season when the Trojans won their first title since he became coach. The Trojans have won 17 championships, including five since the NCAA adopted the current team format in 1977.

"You can say USC has all the tradition in the world, we've won 17 titles, but let me tell you something, last year I hadn't won a title, none of us had won a title," Smith said. "The 2002 title meant nothing to us. We felt that. If anything there's more pressure for us because the expectation is there. 'Oh, you're SC, you're supposed to win.'"

Winterbotham insisted his Tennessee players won't feel the pressure of being so close to their first NCAA title.

"This is going to sound funny, and you may not believe me, it's the next match," Winterbotham said when asked how he will approach the final. "We'll have plenty of opportunities to sit back and look at our accomplishments this year. Right now, we are focusing on the next match. We've done that all year and we're going to continue to do that."

Tennessee beat Georgia in Athens for the first time since 1993. Georgia had the majority of the 2,817 fans.

"I'm proud of our guys for handling this the way they did," Winterbotham said.

Georgia's Javier Garrapiz beat Tennessee's J.P. Smith, the nation's top-ranked player, 7-5, 6-4 at No. 1 singles.

Georgia coach Manuel Diaz called the Vols "a great team" and predicted "a great final" against USC.