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Fitting finish: Men's tennis sends off Quigley, Musialek with outright SEC title

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Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 6-1 on Saturday to clinch the SEC regular season championship outright. (Steve Harp, UK Athletics) Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 6-1 on Saturday to clinch the SEC regular season championship outright. (Steve Harp, UK Athletics)
It's appropriate Eric Quigley's regular season career should end this way.

UK's all-time singles win leader, Quigley is the most decorated player in the history of the Kentucky men's tennis program. He's played No. 1singles for most of his career, winning matches against some of the nation's best players in conference play, the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.

He has logged too many accomplishments to list, but after Saturday's regular season finale, a new one shoots to the top of the list. With a 6-1 win over Vanderbilt, the Wildcats clinched an outright SEC championship, completing a spotless 11-0 run through what most agree to be the nation's best conference. Not only that, he did it all playing alongside fellow senior Alex Musialek, the classmate he has come to call a close friend.

"How many people get to say their Senior Day is a chance to clinch the SEC outright?" Quigley said. "I'm right next to one of my best friends and we're both in the stadium and we're both seniors and we both win. All the good things that have happened these last four years, it all came down to today and it was awesome."

Quigley has been the anchor of the Cats' success all season, and it was no different against the Commodores. Teaming with Panav Jha, he helped lead UK to a doubles victory as the Cats moved to 17-0 on the season when winning the crucial doubles point. In singles, Quigley defeated No. 34 Charlie Jones in straight sets, 6-2, 6-3 and finishes SEC singles play unbeaten, just like his team.

Having fought through the rigors of SEC for four years now, Quigley has a full appreciation for just how significant it is to go unbeaten in the regular season. Reflecting on his freshman season, when the Cats lost five conference matches and fell in the NCAA Tournament's second round, the Pewee Valley, Ky., native finds the enormity of the accomplishment hard to fathom.

"When I came in, I would have never dreamed we would run the table in the SEC as a team. I was just lucky to have a chance to play as a freshman I thought," Quigley said. "For all these good things that have happened to me at Kentucky, I can only thank (associate head coach) Cedric (Kauffmann) and (head coach) Dennis (Emery) that have helped me get to this place, because I certainly wouldn't have done it alone or without those great coaches."

Emery has even more experience in this league than Quigley having coached at UK for three decades now. He began the season optimistic this Kentucky team could be among the best he's seen, but he could not have imagined this.

"Eight of the top 21 teams in the country are in the SEC, so to win it and to run the table and go 11-0, is just quite an accomplishment," Emery said. "I really didn't think at the beginning of the year that our team would do this. I feel like they've just really come together. Overachieve is maybe not the right word, but achieve to their maximum potential and it's very difficult to do."

In assigning the credit for the title - and there's plenty to go around - Emery looks first to the two seniors who have helped reestablish his program among the nation's elite.

"It's a really special time for us with Eric and Alex," Emery said. "They're both so committed to the program. They're both so committed to winning. When they came here, we were coming off probably the only bad year we've had in 20 years or something, so when they came here, we weren't where we're at right now. The reason we are there is because of Eric and Alex both."

For all his individual brilliance, Quigley has always been about the team, and his approach was rewarded last season with a trip to the Elite Eight. But never before has he been surrounded by such a balanced, talented group. Really, it feels to Quigley like his entire college career has been building to this senior sendoff.

"It's awesome, and it takes a lot of pressure off everyone's shoulders on the team knowing, 'Oh, if I don't win, we can win on all the other five courts or doubles,' " Quigley said. "It's really good knowing everyone's got a great chance out there. It makes it a lot more special knowing everyone's contributing all the time."

Sunday's SEC-clinching win and the ensuing celebration may have felt like a conclusion - especially when Quigley was on the receiving end of much of the Gatorade shower intended for Emery - but the Wildcats' primary goals remain in front of them. In his post-match address to the team, Emery delivered this message.

"That we need to keep going," Emery said. "That it's great to celebrate and it's fantastic what we've done and that we're very proud, but our goal was to win the conference and to go the Final Four. It wasn't just to win the conference, so we've got a lot in front of us."

Knowing the focus and work ethic that Quigley has helped instill in this team, that's not going to be an issue. It also doesn't hurt that the Cats believe they are playing their best tennis of the year heading into next weekend's SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament to follow.

"If there's a good time to play your best tennis, it's for sure right now and I think everybody can keep it going," Quigley said. "We got a lot more. (We have to) turn around and get ready starting Monday for the SEC Tournament, which starts later this week. We're going to celebrate for a little bit, but we got to get back to work soon."

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