Illinois men's golf ready for Final Four rematch at East Lake Cup

By Chris Kennedy

The Illinois men’s golf team’s season ended in the Final Four of the NCAA last year.

The team earned the No. 1 seed in match play at the National Championship, and after a thrilling quarterfinal victory against UCLA, Illinois fell to Southern California. This week, Illinois will face USC once again, as well as the other two NCAA semifinalists, LSU and Georgia, at the East Lake Cup in Atlanta.

“We wanted to win the whole thing last year, and we came one match away from getting to the final match,” head coach Mike Small said. “I think that’s the intrigue of this tournament. There’s a little history behind the teams that are here. They just saw each other six months ago. Hopefully we can go in there this time and win the thing.”

The inaugural East Lake Cup brings back the four semifinalists from the previous season’s NCAA championships.

Last year, LSU took home the national title by beating USC in the final match. The East Lake Cup will rematch last year’s semifinals. Illinois will face USC on Monday, while LSU takes on Georgia. The winners play on Tuesday.

“We want to show that we’re a better team than USC after they beat us in the Final Four last year,” sophomore Nick Hardy said. “It’s an opportunity for us to get redemption, and we want to end the fall season the right way.”

The Illini have won all but one of their tournaments this fall. At the Fighting Illini Invite, the team took fifth without senior Charlie Danielson, who injured his back during a practice round. Otherwise, Illinois has looked dominant and lived up to its preseason No. 1 ranking.

The team faced elite competition at the Fighting Illini Invite as well as two weeks ago at the Tavistock Collegiate Invite, another premiere collegiate golf event. At Tavistock, the Illini climbed up the standings each day of the competition, moving up from fourth on the first day of play to take the team championship.

The East Lake Cup brings not only elite competition: the reigning semifinalists are currently No. 8, No. 17 and No. 25, but also the Illini’s first match play tournament since the NCAA’s last spring. The team has been playing match play amongst themselves in practice to prepare for the different pressure that comes with it.

In the team’s last match play victory, the NCAA quarterfinal, Illinois was tied 2-2 with UCLA going into the final hole. Then-freshman Hardy sunk a clutch putt to clinch the victory. But against USC in the semifinal, Illinois lost 3-1-1. Graduated senior Brian Campbell was tied through 18 holes and the lone Illini victory came from Thomas Detry over the Trojan’s Sean Crocker. Like Illinois, USC returns four of their five starters from last year’s run at the NCAA Championships. LSU returns three, and Georgia returns four.

“I don’t try to look at the rankings,” Detry said. “The only thing we want to do when we play some very good teams, we just want to win … There’s not really any different expectation, we just go there to win and play our game. I’m confident in my team and confident in myself and I know that if we play some very good golf, we’ll end up winning.”

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