Illinois men’s tennis moves on to Sweet 16

With a win Saturday, Illinois head coach Brad Dancer has now led the Illini to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament seven times in his nine years at the helm. However, none of the past six will be nearly as sweet as this season’s.

The Illini beat Memphis 4-3 to seal a trip to Athens, Georgia. 

The level of excitement over the course of the four-hour long match never dwindled, as Illinois came back from a 3-0 deficit.

“We’ve been on the bad end of some breaks this year, and that was plain, downright lucky today,” Dancer said. “It feels good to be lucky.” 

Lucky or not, the Illini were able to pull out their biggest comeback of the season. 

Illinois lost the doubles point to begin the match, and went on to lose the first set in five of the six singles matches. To say it was looking down for the Illini would have been an understatement. 

“I’m only 20 years old and have only been around college tennis for so long, but I’ve never seen anything like it, let alone be apart of something like it,” junior Ross Guignon said. 

Sophomore Jared Hiltzik fought off two match points with the Illini still trailing 3-0, but the comeback had slowly begun. 

Tim Kopinski and Blake Bazarnik both finished off victories in the third set to pull the Illini within striking distance. Then the fun really began. 

The perks of playing the first two rounds at home began to clearly show themselves for Illinois. 

The Illini faithful turned up the intensity with countless I-L-L chants, and junior Farris Gosea even began to bark like a dog to cheer on Guignon. 

Guignon, a fan favorite, battled to a third set win, bringing the match to 3-3, and the fans to their feet. 

The crowd had gathered around court six to see if Guignon could keep the match alive, and after watching him let his racket and hat fly in celebration, all attention shifted to court one. 

Hiltzik, who fended off match point twice to kickstart the comeback, was already up 5-1 in the third by the time Guignon finished. Hiltzik knew at that point exactly what was on his shoulders.

“I probably know every point of that game better than (Guignon) does, I was watching every single one,” Hiltzik said. 

Hiltzik finished off the third set with ease, and the celebration was on. 

The Illinois players mobbed each other on Hiltzik’s court, and associate head coach Marcos Asse ran to embrace Dancer off to the side of the celebration. 

Dancer’s facial expression was one of absolute shock and joy. 

“No chance at all (we win this match on the road). The crowd was fantastic, there’s nothing like playing here,” Dancer said. 

The singing of the alma mater and the classic Gatorade shower of Dancer followed the initial celebration, and the Illini couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces. 

The comeback could be one of the best in Dancer’s nine years at Illinois, or even in the program’s history books. 

But all it means in the big picture is that the Illini are still alive. They will play the winner Sunday’s match in Waco, Texas, between Baylor and Tulsa. While they say that Georgia’s peaches are sweet, there’s nothing that could be sweeter for the Illini than the round of 16. 

“(The Sweet 16) has never been my goal, I think this team is capable of more,” Dancer said. “I’m proud as heck of these guys for their toughness today.” 

Brett can be reached at [email protected] and @Blerner10.