Their yellow T-shirts read Murray State, but any lower-seeded team would have served the purpose Saturday.
Two weeks after losing in the Big Ten tournament finals and ruining a 57-match winning streak in conference, the Illinois men's tennis team was back on the court for the first round of the NCAA tournament.
They had plenty of time to think about that Ohio State loss, which junior Nathan Zeder called a "reality shock." With most players completing finals early in the week, all their attention was on punishing the Racers.
"We really wanted to make a statement, show that we're still as good as we know we are," Zeder said. "People might not think it, and that's fine. But we believe in ourselves."
As many of their classmates packed up and headed off for the summer, the 12th-ranked Illini sent Murray State home with a 4-0 sweep. Illinois will face No. 17 Mississippi State at noon today at Atkins Tennis Center.
After winning the doubles point, Zeder took his match at No. 6 singles in less than a half-hour, and the rout was on. Zeder said the match was easier and definitely more fun than finals. It also erased some of the sting from the conference tournament loss.
"We had a bad taste in our mouth, and it was good to get that out because that was the last match we played," senior Graydon Oliver said. "It was good to get over that hump and get out here and play good tennis. I think it was definitely something we looked forward to."
Oliver could see it coming throughout the week as the Illini (22-6) held "intense" practices. Oliver said the team talked about using the Ohio State loss as motivation and not ever losing to inferior teams.
Coach Craig Tiley expected a dominant performance from his athletes and talked to them about rising to the occasion.
"We've got big guys who have big games, and they had to play us," Tiley said. "They have to be aggressive, go after their serves, go after their returns, not hold back and let nerves diminish their level of play. The second thing was having a hunger and making a statement."
The doubles teams of Oliver and Amer Delic and Mike Kosta and Michael Calkins made their statements with early wins. Zeder, Delic and Phil Stolt added the singles wins, losing three games between them.
"I think since these lower-seeded teams don't have anything to lose, we needed to come out and work on our own personal game," Calkins said. "Everyone came out with a big emphasis that this is a clean slate and we can prove the we're the top team in the country."
For the 10th-seeded Illini, that's not just talk. They expect to be at the championships in Athens, Ga., next weekend.
"I think we can go all the way," Oliver said. "I have no doubt in my mind. If we do the right things and we listen to the coaches and come out prepared every day and fired up, I have no doubt we have five matches ahead of us."
Senior Carla Rosenberg won in singles and doubles, helping lead Sujay Lama's women's team to a 4-2 victory against Virginia Commonwealth in Seattle. The Illini take on host Washington at 2 p.m. today for a Sweet 16 berth.
"To get our first NCAA tournament victory ever feels really good," head coach Sujay Lama said. "I'm so happy for this team, which has set a lot of firsts at Illinois.
"I'm especially proud of our two wonderful seniors (Rosenberg and Simone Kung). They keep telling their teammates, 'We don't want this to be our last match. We want to make it to Atlanta.' "
Rosenberg teamed with Eva Choe to win at No. 2 doubles as the Illini clinched that point. She then beat VCU's Wendy Hsu 6-1, 6-0 in straight sets.
Lama said his team competed well after a long layoff from the Big Ten tournament.
"We're having a blast out here," he said. "I've never had a team that's tighter, always giggling, having fun.
"But at the same time, we're not content. We think we've earned respect in the Big Ten, but now we want it nationally."