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Gators men's tennis coach Bryan Shelton talks to freshman Maxx Lipman during Sunday's win over USF.

Sunday May 11, 2014Gators Give Shelton Reason to Smile by Earning Sweet 16 Berth

Gators men's tennis coach Bryan Shelton talks to freshman Maxx Lipman during Sunday's win over USF.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The smile on Bryan Shelton's face said all you need to know.

It was late Sunday night, and when the day started, Shelton expected to be long home by the time the UF men's tennis team clinched its NCAA Tournament win against USF.

A 2-hour, 42-minute weather delay shortly after singles play started at Linder Stadium turned what was to be a nice afternoon of tennis into an all-day marathon that finished at UF's Perry Indoor Tennis Facility.

When Gators senior Florent Diep, in the final home match of his career, raised his arms to celebrate a 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1 victory at No. 1 singles over USF's Roberto Cid, the few dozen diehards who hung around until the end roared their approval.

Shelton broke out a big smile, one that was still flashing his pearly whites a half hour later.

"It was a long day today but our guys were up to the challenge,'' Shelton said. "I'm just really proud of the way we played."

The Gators' 4-0 win over USF punched their ticket to the Sweet 16, where they will face Ohio State on Friday at the University of Georgia.

Redemption was sweet for Shelton, in his second season as UF's head coach.

A year ago the Gators led Denver 3-0 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament and then fell apart.

What appeared to be a certain victory turned into something that Shelton needed time to process and move past as the Gators were upset on their home court.

Not the start to his UF career that Shelton envisioned.

"Definitely a lowlight,'' he said.

He went to work and rebuilt the Gators in the offseason, adding a pair of true freshmen -- Maxx Lipman and Elliott Orkin -- who played a big part in Sunday's victory.

Lipman and Orkin captured the doubles point for Florida with a gutsy comeback from a 6-3 deficit. They won the tiebreaker 7-2 after trailing 2-1. A return by Lipman started a 6-0 run in the tiebreaker that provided a huge lift prior to the weather delay.

"We got off to a tough start,'' Lipman said. "We just stayed to our game plan. We were confident we would get a chance to break back. When we got that chance we took it and never really looked back from there."

Equally important, Shelton hired someone to build the players once they got on campus: assistant coach Mark Merklein, a former UF All-American and NCAA singles champion.

Shelton mentioned words like fitter, stronger and smarter when asked Sunday to explain the turnaround.

No. 14-seed Florida, which defeated St. John's in the first round on Saturday, improved to 17-9 overall and has won eight of its last 10 matches.

Diep served as a barometer of the Gators' current mentality Sunday by outlasting Cid in a match that last 2 hours, 56 minutes.

"I'm ready for another one,'' he told Merklein when it was finally over.

Sophomore Gordon Watson also won in three sets, defeating USF's Oliver Pramming 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Lipman earned Florida's other singles point by defeating Sasha Gozun in straight sets (6-4, 6-2).

"He has done an amazing job of getting these guys physically prepared to play,'' Shelton said of Merklein. "It showed today, just how well we moved and our endurance and how strong we were in the long points and the long matches."

The victory set up a rematch against Ohio State for a berth in the Elite Eight. The Buckeyes defeated the Gators 4-1 in February at the ITA National Team Indoors in Houston.

The Gators have come a long way since then.

"I don't feel like we're the same team that we were the first time we played them,'' Lipman said. "We are playing well one through six. We feel like we can beat anybody at any spot in the lineup."

When Shelton took over the Florida program prior to last season, days like Sunday was what he had in mind.

The Gators played hard, they played smart, and they advanced in the NCAA Tournament.

Shelton has been all the way. He won a national title as Georgia Tech's women's coach and wants to do the same at Florida.

The Gators looked like a program on the right track Sunday.

"It feels unbelievable,'' Shelton said. "To see these guys and see the work that they’ve put in and see them rewarded for their hard work. It is nice when you do get the reward.

"I couldn’t be prouder of this group to have the opportunity to move on to the round of 16. My first time here at Florida is special. It will certainly be a year that I will never forget."

A year that has surpassed his first one at UF in every way -- and worth smiling about.


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