Men bow in Big Ten final, ‘right there’ until the end

By Alex Iniguez

If you asked head coach Brad Dancer how his weekend went, he’d say “disappointing.” Despite making it to the title match of the Big Ten Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, on Sunday, the No. 15 Illini (18-8, 8-2 Big Ten) ended their weekend on a sour note, losing 4-3 to No. 2 Ohio State (31-1, 10-0).

“The weekend as a whole comes down to a few points because we came here to win a title,” Dancer said. “We didn’t come here to lose or anything else. The weekend is just disappointing – that’s the reality of it. We’re a couple points here and there away from being where we want to be.”

Until late in the match, Illinois appeared to be in control. The Illini won the doubles point behind strong play from Waylon Chin and Brandon Davis. They went on to take their four first sets in singles matches, but the Buckeyes were just too much to handle. Ryan Rowe, ranked No. 19 in the nation, and Roy Kalmanovich were defeated in straight sets, while Billy Heiser took down Ohio State’s Shuhei Uzawa, 6-2, 6-3. Leading 3-2 in the match, the Orange and Blue needed one more victory to be crowned Big Ten Champions. But No. 48 Ruben Gonzales and Marc Spicijaric were taken down in tough three-set battles, and Illinois got the loss.

“This was the second time this year that we felt like we had Ohio State on the ropes, and we picked up a loss,” Dancer said. “You have to give them some credit, but we’re just not finishing teams off right now. If we can’t win three singles matches against Ohio State, that’s absurd. Ohio State’s a good team, but that’s just absurd that we can’t win three singles matches with the Big Ten title on the line.”

The weekend began promisingly, as the Illini flattened No. 37 Indiana 4-0, before avenging a regular-season loss to No. 34 Wisconsin with a 4-1 win. Throughout the first two matches, Kalmanovich performed as well as any player, even though the freshman was seeing his first competition since joining the team in January. Kalmanovich took little time to get into a solid rhythm, winning 6-2, 6-4 against Indiana’s Michael McCarthy, followed by a victory against Wisconsin’s Felipe Bellido.

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    “It feels great to finally have a chance to play after recently being cleared to play from the NCAA Clearinghouse,” Kalmanovich said. “It’s great to get out on the court. These were my first three competitive matches in almost a year. I feel like I can play much better, but it was a great start for me to play this way.”

    For the third time this season, Illinois came close to defeating one of the top two teams in the country. In its second match of the year, the team narrowly lost 4-3 to No. 1 Virginia, and on April 12, the Illini fell to Ohio State 5-2.

    “Everyone definitely wanted to win this weekend,” Chin said. “We had a great mindset, and I feel like everyone took it to their opponents hard. From the scores today, you could see that everyone had a chance to win. We were right there.”