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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Erik Corace had been here before.

Score knotted at three. Playing against Miami. And this time, if he lost, the door would've been opened even wider for the Hurricanes.

On Jan. 29 in Coral Gables it came down to Corace and Miami's J.C. Whitner for the game-winning point, but Corace fell 6-3 in the deciding set, and UF had its first loss of the season.

But on Sunday, against Miami in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, it came down to Corace again, and this time he came through. With the Hurricanes clinging to one point and hoping that Daniel Vallverdu could upset UF's Greg Ouellette in the No. 1 position, Corace came back from down 5-2 to beat Whitner 6-1, 7-6 (2). That win sent the Gators to the Round of 16 for the seventh-straight season.

UF (17-7) will now play No. 7 Texas Friday in Tulsa, Okla.

"He's shown me that his composure and maturity is a lot better and that he's improved," UF Coach Andy Jackson said of Corace. "For Erik to close it out says a lot for us and says a lot for the guts of Miami."

The elder classmen have certainly taken notice of Corace's growth throughout his freshman year.

"He's definitely learned a lot," senior Nestor Briceno said. "He's grown so much, and I'm so proud of him. He's someone people should look forward to watching in the coming years."

For just a freshman, Corace has certainly had time to sit in the pressure cooker. He said he's been through four matches this season where it came down to him.

"I got a little ahead of myself today in the second set and got down 5-2,but I kept fighting," Corace said. "It was windy, and I just thought to myself to just keep balls in play."

Briceno also had a strong weekend, winning both of his singles matches easily.

While Ouelette is the No. 1 ranked UF player, it's been Briceno who has been playing like it.

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"The last eight weeks the guy has been one of the best players in the country," Jackson said. "Again today he was the best player on either team, and I thought his play was spectacular."

It was a much easier start to the tournament for the Gators as they throttled Navy on Saturday 5-0. Teams need only four points to secure a win, but UF was able to score the fifth in a rare play where Tyler Hochwalt's winning serve went up the same time as Briceno's. Since Briceno's ball was in play, it was allowed to stand and he beat out Jason Hill's score.

"The Navy guy was a good sport," Briceno said. "It was fun kicking his butt."

While the score doesn't indicate it, the Midshipmen did put up a tough fight in the doubles competition. Hochwalt and Geoffrey Barton just held off Hill and Nick Birger 8-6 for the doubles point.

"They probably thought they could win until they lost the doubles," Jackson said.

Added Briceno:

"They were extremely tough in doubles. I think we underestimated them in doubles."

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