Bittersweet 16: Illinois falls to Florida in NCAA tournament

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Photo Courtesy of Craig Pessman / Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Noe Khlif and sophomore Siphosothando Montsi celebrate after gaining a point in a match on May 8 against Notre Dame. In Florida, the team had a lot of support from Illinois fans bu fell to top-seeded Florida in the Round of 16.

By Enji Erdenekhuyag, Staff Writer

The Illinois men’s tennis team wrapped up its postseason run with a 4-0 loss to Florida in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

The No. 1 seed proved to be a challenging tussle for Illinois, as the Gators snipped down the Illini’s path to victory match by match Monday night. 

Florida’s game took form from the get-go in doubles play. Though Aleks Kovacevic and Hunter Heck picked up a 6-4 victory over the Gators on court three, Illinois failed to capitalize on the leverage. The Illini dropped its remaining two matches after struggling to make quick transitions and return overhead shots. 

Behind on the first point, Illinois needed to snap out of its early lull and turn things around in singles play. Florida, however, was keen to keep its momentum. The Gators went on a scoring bout and reeled in the first set in five of its matches. 

Noe Khlif lost in straight sets, 6-1, 6-3, to Josh Goodger, who remains undefeated this season with an 8-0 record. Alex Brown fell to Andy Andrade 6-2, 6-3, and to cap off the win, Florida’s Blaise Bicknell defeated Zeke Clark 6-3, 6-3. 

Despite the loss, Illinois rallied on all its courts. Before the night ended, Heck — who was the only Illini to win his first set — and Kovacevic hung on in their respective matches, sending them into third sets. Though Siphosthando Montsi dropped his first set, he had notched a 3-0 lead at one point. 

While Illinois fans couldn’t watch the team throughout the season at Atkins Tennis Center due to COVID-19, they could attend the tournament, and Illinois drew quite the crowd in Orlando. 

“We drowned out all the Gator fans, and that is a testament to our amazing fan base,” said head coach Brad Dancer in a press release. “I couldn’t be more proud of all the people that made the effort to come down here and scream and yell. We love Illini Nation. It was so cool for these guys who didn’t have fans all year … to come down to this moment.”

This loss was the end to a season that saw upsets over the top-ranked teams of the University of Southern California, Virginia and Ohio State. Named as the Big Ten West division regular-season champions, Illinois also clinched its first Big Ten tournament title in six years over Ohio State.

“I’m so proud of this team and this group of guys,” Dancer said. “They have a legacy of their Big Ten Tournament Championship and regular season accomplishment. There are so many great memories that we have had with this group, and I’m proud of their resiliency, their growth about everything they’ve been through and proud of this season.”

Clark, Kovacevic and Montsi will stay in Orlando to compete in the NCAA singles tournament Sunday. 

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