NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The No. 16 seed Vanderbilt Commodores played the role of spoiler Saturday afternoon on their home court, negating the Fighting Illini's homecoming bid for the NCAA Championships with a 4-1 win. Illinois' all-time NCAA Tournament Second Round record moves to 12-3 as their 2013 campaign ends with a 17-11 overall record.
"We fought back really well today and got ourselves back into the match, but just dug ourselves a massive hole that we almost clawed back out of," said Illinois head coach Brad Dancer. "Credit Vandy, I think they did good things in certain spots but we mostly shot ourselves in the foot a little bit. Proud of AJ who righted the ship quickly and Farris who also got things back on track. We blew a good opportunity so that's on us and we'll have to do better."
"The team wants to reach out to all the supporters that made the trip to Nashville," continued Dancer. "They made it feel like a home match for us on the road. In addition, I want to give a special thanks to coaches Marcos Asse and Jeff Laski for their contributions to Illinois tennis. While this is very disappointing day, we are very excited about a new foundation we are building and looking forward to the individuals competing in championships and a strong summer and returning Illinois tennis to one of the nationally elite programs."
It was a tightly contested doubles competition early on as all three courts were tied at 3-3. On court one, the Vanderbilt combo of Austin/Lipman took five straight games vs. #16 Kopinski/Guignon to finish first at 8-3. Then the Commodores took the doubles point thanks to a Eswaran/Offerdahl 8-6 win on court three over Gosea/Page. On court two, Jesse/Hiltziki vs. Johnson/Van der Merwe went unfinished at 6-6.
The Illini then found their backs against the walls in singles as Vanderbilt claimed four of the six first sets and then pushed the lead to 3-0 with victories on courts two and one. In the battle of top ranked foes #10 Ryan Lipman downed #32 Jared Hiltzik 6-4, 6-4 in a back and forth grind-out match in No. 1 singles. It was the first loss in eight singles matches for Hiltzik.
Freshman Alex Jesse displayed some comeback grit for the Orange and Blue this afternoon. Down 5-2 to Van der Merwe in the first set, the Mequon, Wis. native won 11 straight games to win 7-5, 6-0 and obtain the Illini's lone point on the day.
Sophomore Farris Gosea and senior Stephen Hoh also kept the Illini alive. Gosea fought back to take the second set 6-2 after dropping the first set 2-6, and Hoh won his first set 6-2 and was at 5-5 in the second set. However, the decisive point came on court six where Rhys Johnson bested Ross Guignon 6-3, 6-3.
Despite the loss not all the Illini's postseason hopes are done, as Jared Hiltzik will compete in the NCAA singles tournament, while Ross Guignon and Tim Kopinski will team together for the doubles tournament. The singles and doubles round will occur May 22-27 at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex at the conclusion of the team tournament.
The trio of Illini are vying for their first-career All-America honor by advancing to the Sweet 16 in singles or Elite Eight in doubles. All-America honors also can be earned by finishing the regular season in the top 20 in singles or the top 10 in doubles in the final ITA poll. The last All-American in singles was Dennis Nevolo in 2012, while the duo of Kevin Anderson and Ryan Rowe last achieved the feat in doubles in 2007.
Fans can purchase NCAA tickets by calling 866-Illini-1. Adult all-session tickets are $100, while youth (18 and under) all-session tickets are $75. Single-day tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for youth. Admission is free for children age two or younger. Groups of 10 or more can purchase single-day group tickets at $5 apiece by calling the Illinois Ticket Office at 866-Illini-1.