He didn’t scream, pump his fist or beat his chest.
As Karue Sell walked to the net to shake his opponent’s hand, all he did was throw his head back and laugh.
“Honestly, I had no idea how it happened,” Sell said after clinching his team’s 4-1 victory over Texas Tech University (6-2) on Saturday to earn the Bruins (3-0) a trip to the ITA Division I National Men’s Team Indoor Championship next month in Chicago.
Prior to his win, the junior co-captain was on the brink of defeat with seemingly little control over the match. Down 3-1 in the third set to Texas Tech’s Alex Sendegeya, Sell was on the verge of surrendering a fourth game, with the score at 40-0.
He wasn’t the only one having trouble. Over on the other singles courts, several Bruins had seen their early leads disappear on the second day of ITA Kick-Off Weekend. After winning the first set in five of the six singles matchups, the Bruins dropped five second sets to the Red Raiders.
A match that had looked like a routine victory after UCLA pulled out a closely contested doubles point now looked dicey.
Within a minute, Sell overcame the 40-0 deficit to break Sendegeya’s serve. With the third set at 3-2, Sell had to rely on a part of his game that had been failing him since the beginning of the second set: his serve.
“The way things were going with my serve, I didn’t think I was going to win,” Sell said. “It’s very mental. Some people sometimes can’t hit their forehand or their backhand. For me, it’s my serve – it’s a mental thing where my serve just goes away for a little bit. And I just have to keep hitting until it comes back.”
Between games, assistant coach Grant Chen came and sat down with Sell on the bench and half-jokingly told him to consider serving underhand.
Instead, Sell decided to hit his second serves the way he typically hits his first ones, allowing him to try to find a better rhythm. It worked.
Sell won the next four games to close out a 4-1 victory for his team.
The team’s win came on the heels of a Friday victory over Pepperdine University (1-1) that coach Billy Martin described as disappointing.
“Against the top teams, you’re lucky if you get one chance to win a set or match,” Martin said. “If you let those go, sometimes you don’t get a second chance.”
Martin said he had been particularly upset with the performance of his top player, sophomore Mackenzie McDonald, the nation’s No. 7 singles player. McDonald’s Friday match went unfinished, but he struggled to put away Pepperdine’s Guilherme Hadlich in the first set, falling behind 6-3 in the tiebreak before coming back to win the set.
“He just lost total concentration in my opinion: got lethargic, stopped moving, wasn’t real competitive,” Martin said. “He really dropped his level and was not sharp at all.”
McDonald said his aim for Saturday’s match was to attack more, a mindset that produced a dominant 6-0, 6-3 victory over Texas Tech’s Felipe Soares, the nation’s No. 28 singles player.
“I felt pretty defensive yesterday, so today, I thought I’d come in and try to change that,” McDonald said. “I felt like I was way more aggressive today and played more of the style I should be.”
Martin summed up McDonald’s return to form with a remark to his player after the commanding first-set victory: “That’s the guy I know.”
After winning the doubles point, the Bruins only needed three singles wins to defeat Texas Tech. They got those points, though freshman Austin Rapp and senior Dennis Mkrtchian were mired in three-set battles that could have gone either way before the meet was abandoned.
“It’s going to be that kind of year – we’re not going to step up and blow out good teams,” Martin said. “We’re going to have to be scrappy.”