No. 4 Illinois stumbles against lower seeds in Big Ten tournament, leave tournament 0-2

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Sidney Malone

Right-handed pitcher Riley Gowens pitches the ball to the batter during a game against Nebraska on May 14. Gowens gave a great performance on Friday during the Big Ten tournament with five innings however, the Illini were unable to secure the victory and will no longer be playing in the tournament with a 5-7 loss on Thursday and a 1-8 loss on Friday.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

The surging Illini came into Omaha, Neb., for the first Big Ten tournament in three years with momentum, winning nine of their last 10, but the energy was subdued almost immediately.

A first-round matchup with No. 5 Michigan posed a fresh challenge for No. 4 Illinois, who had not met the Wolverines during the regular season.

After the game got postponed on Wednesday, the Thursday games all went longer than expected, and sophomore Cole Kirschieper threw the first pitch at 10:53 p.m.

The Wolverines brought the action early, as the first two batters of the game each hit towering home runs to right-center field and grabbed all of the momentum in Omaha.

Senior Taylor Jackson cut the lead in half in the bottom of the second with an RBI single, but Michigan responded in the third to go back up two.

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    The Illini responded once again with a two-out rally in the fourth, as junior Ryan Hampe laced a double to left and followed by another double by Jackson to tie the game at three.

    A solo shot gave Michigan the lead in the fifth, which would be Kirschieper’s final inning. He made way for the bullpen to try and stop the Wolverine offense.

    Sophomore Cal Hejza knotted the game at four in the sixth, but the Illini left runners on second and third afterwards, failing to capitalize. Ten Illini ended up stranded on the basepaths on Thursday night, which would end up costing them the game.

    Michigan answered the tie game with two in the eighth and one in the ninth to take the game 7-4. Illinois’ ninth inning run wasn’t enough for a comeback, sending the Illini to the losers bracket after a 7-5 loss.

    Game two was Friday evening as the Illini matched up with eight-seed Indiana, who also lost their first game to Maryland.

    The Illini offense was shut down in a pitcher’s duel as the team could never get anything going.

    Indiana scored the first run of the game in the bottom of the third inning, which was the only earned run allowed by the Illini starting pitcher. Sophomore Riley Gowens went five innings and only allowed two runs — one earned — on four hits and tallied five strikeouts.

    Junior Branden Comia evened the score at one with an RBI groundout in the sixth, but a sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the inning gave the Hoosiers the lead once again.

    The teams remained scoreless until the bottom of the eighth, where the Hoosiers exploded for six insurance runs that were too difficult to overcome.

    The Illini fell 8-1, ending their stay in the Big Ten tournament with a disappointing 0-2 record, dropping both games to teams with lower seeds. They did nothing to bolster their resume and will likely miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

    Gowens is disappointed that the season is over but knows there were bright spots for himself and the team despite the losses.

    “I was able to get my fastball command established early, which helped and made it easy to mix in the changeup and curveball when I got going,” Gowens said.

    Gowens also liked what he saw from underclassmen on the team, and thought they showed good fight when trailing. 

    “I think there were a lot of bright spots, especially with the young guys,” Gowens said. “They were doing some good stuff, and the bottom of the lineup really came through when the top guys were struggling. They kept us in the ballgame.”

    At the end of the tournament, the Illini record is 31-22 (17-9 B1G) and they will look ahead to next season with aspirations to return to the NCAA stage.

    “Everyone kind of knows the expectations and is motivated to get going next year to win these types of games.”

     

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