Illini of the week: Illinois shows resilience, wins Big Ten Tournament title over Ohio State


Photo Courtesy of Lydia Asplin/NU Communications

Communications The Illinois men’s tennis team celebrates on the court after winning the Big Ten tournament Sunday.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

No one closes out clutch matches quite like Zeke Clark, and Sunday’s play served as another reminder.
With Illinois and Ohio State tied at 3-3, the Big Ten championship ultimately culminated to Clark’s third set.
Though Clark carved out the lead, it soon withered away as Kyle Seelig went on a scoring run late in the match after sending several forehand blows down the line. But, true to his reputation, Clark willed through, and in a 6-7(7), 6-3, 7-6(4) victory, he helped the Illini claim the conference tournament title.
“I can’t really put it into words how I felt then, how I feel now,” Clark said. “It feels amazing to win an outright Big Ten title. It means a lot.”
In the final moments of the match, head coach Brad Dancer not only found himself at a loss for words, but also in a state of awe.
“I had to go back on the bus ride home last night and watch what happened on match point, because I just sort of blanked,” Dancer said.
Clark’s clincher, though, was spurred by the gritty groundwork the Illini already had established.

Senior Zeke Clark prepares to hit a ball at the Big Ten Tournament against Ohio State Sunday. (Photo Courtesy of Lydia Asplin/NU Communications)

Illinois snagged the doubles point after gaining early breaks in all three of its matches. Noe Khlif and Siphosothando Montsi were the first to edge a win (6-2), and Aleks Kovacevic and Hunter Heck followed suit (6-4).
Early in singles play, the momentum shifted and veered in favor of Ohio State when Illinois dropped two matches.
Heck, competing against JJ Tracy, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year who also was undefeated at the time, lost his first set 6-0. In the second, Heck chewed off a 6-3 win to send the match into a tiebreaker, in which he went on an absolute tear. Showcasing his quick transitions and scrappy scheming, he clawed his way out of a 5-2 deficit, winning five straight games to take the set 7-5.
The Buckeyes teetered with control on the remaining courts, capturing one more match before Khlif and Clark bounced back to take the two wins that would lead them to the title.
In his match, Khlif competed against a player who essentially embodied his antithesis. Khlif likes the baseline rallies, while Ohio State sophomore Robert Cash is big on the serve-and-volley. Khilf said adjusting to this tactically different approach was difficult, but the Illinois senior pushed through the three-setter 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.
“It was an incredible effort by both Heck and Khlif to fight back in their matches, and that was, again, the opportunity that set the table for Zeke’s drama,” Dancer said.
When Illinois began its play this year, the team set its sights beyond the regular season; the Illini were determined to make history, and that would start with their long-time rival, Ohio State. The Illini hadn’t beat the Buckeyes in five years, but that didn’t diminish their ambition; it fostered it.
“We have a group of 12 very competitive guys; they have a group of 12 very competitive guys,” Clark said. “We go at it every single time.

The Illinois men’s tennis team poses for a photo with the trophy they received for winning the Big Ten Tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska Sunday. (Photo Courtesy of Lydia Asplin/NU Communications)

“Beating Ohio State in the Big Ten championship is, well, we thought about it every day honestly at practice,” Khlif said. “We thought about it every day, and being able to do it is just a magical thing.”
Illinois doesn’t have too much time to celebrate, though, as it will host NCAA Regionals play Friday and Saturday, with the Illini slated to play DePaul at 4 p.m. Friday. The Illini have not lost a first-round NCAA tournament match since 1998, but they can’t let that record get to their heads in a season full of upsets and unpredictability.

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