UNLV beats altitude, BYU to net Mountain West title

A cooler of Gatorade had just been dumped on his head, but Owen Hambrook was having trouble absorbing it all.

The UNLV men’s tennis coach, whose team stumbled to a 10-13 regular-season record, had just seen his third-seeded Rebels win the Mountain West Conference tournament at Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday. It was UNLV’s first league championship since Hambrook took over in 2004.

Few opponents, if any, expected UNLV to advance to the finals, let alone win. Even Hambrook had doubts.

“It’s still a little hard for me to believe, to be honest,” said Hambrook, whose team earned the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth and UNLV’s first NCAA bid since 1999. “It was just an unbelievable, magical week.”

The 66th-ranked Rebels beat Utah and Texas Christian to gain a championship berth against another surprise finalist, fifth-seeded Brigham Young. Competing at 6,000 feet would seem to have favored the 74th-ranked Cougars, who play home matches in Provo, Utah. But the Rebels prevailed.

“I always try to recruit guys who are capable of playing at (high) altitudes, because we’ve got a bit of altitude here in Las Vegas,” Hambrook said. “Fitness was also a factor, and the guys adjusted well.”

They adjusted well enough to make the final a blowout. After losing the doubles point to begin the match, UNLV swept singles for a 4-1 victory. Elliot Wronski, Slavko Bijelica, Brett Hunter and Luca Barlocchi all gained singles victories in straight sets.

“It was really quite a dominating performance,” Hambrook said. “In the whole tournament, we didn’t lose a single match in singles.”

The victory by Bijelica, a freshman, over BYU senior Chip Hand was the turning point, Hambrook said.

“When you have a freshman playing a senior in that situation, you know the senior is much more experienced.”

As Bijelica was winning, Hunter and Barlocchi began taking over their matches.

“That’s when I started thinking we could win it,” Hambrook said.

Hambrook actually believed a championship was possible, if not probable, months ago. Despite their sub-.500 record in the regular season, the Rebels faced elite competition and occasionally played several opponents in a short time span.

“At one point, we played six matches in less than 10 days, and I scheduled it that way for a reason,” Hambrook said. “You pretty much have to win three in a row to win the (MWC) tournament. The going was rough for a while, but I truly believe it got us ready.”

Now, are they ready to win in the first round of the NCAAs? It’s impossible to say, because the Rebels won’t know their opponent or regional site until today’s bracket announcement.

The team will gather at 11:30 a.m. today at the ESPN Zone at New York-New York to await word on who they will play.

The regionals run May 11-13.

“It doesn’t matter who we play,” Hambrook said. “The great thing about this is we’re such a young team. It’s great for the program because the guys will get used to this. As freshmen and sophomores, it will stick in their minds and carry through to the next year.

“I told the guys when we got to the final that we were entering uncharted territory because I had never been to the finals. Getting to the NCAAs is just a bonus.”

Meanwhile, the 46th-ranked Lady Rebels (19-7) are left to hope for an NCAA Tournament at-large invitation after losing to BYU 4-0 in the tournament final Saturday at Air Force.

Coach Kevin Cory’s squad posted it most victories since going 20-4 in 2002. The women have made five NCAA appearances, most recently in 2005.

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