Bitter ending: Illinois bows out of NCAA tournament

Bitter ending: Illinois bows out of NCAA tournament

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For Illinois men's tennis coach Brad Dancer, a season-ending loss to Wake Forest left him with mixed emotions afterward.

On the one hand, the Illini broke past the Round of 16 for the first time since 2007.

On the other hand, Illinois wanted more — much more.

"We had a great season, but there is nothing to show for it," Dancer said Sunday evening after his Illini bowed out to the top-seeded Demon Deacons with a 4-0 loss in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. "We didn't win a Big Ten title. We didn't reach the Final Four. So we don't have a feather in our caps to look back on. It stings. It's a little bit of a disappointing end for a group that probably had the talent to accomplish more."

Instead, Wake Forest celebrated its first-ever trip to the national semifinals, while the Illini (24-8), who also lost 4-0 to the Deacons (29-2) earlier this season, were left to ponder what might have been.

Despite losing the doubles' point — Illinois suffered a pair of 6-3 defeats to fall behind 1-0 in the match — Dancer still thought his Illini had a shot to pull off the upset, especially if their No. 5/ No. 6 tandem of sophomore Zeke Clark and freshman Caleb Chakravarthi could grab singles victories. Aleks Vukic was the Illini's not-so-secret ace in the hole and led his No. 1 singles match at one point.

But Illinois' best laid-plans never came to fruition, and the Deacons lived up to their No. 1 billing.

Aron Hiltzik lost 6-4, 6-3 to Skander Mansouri at No. 3 singles, Aleks Kovacevic suffered a 6-4, 7-5 defeat to Bar Botzer at the No. 4 position and Illinois was quickly on the brink of elimination, trailing 3-0.

Wake Forest's Christian Seraphim clinched his team's berth in the Final Four by handing Chakravarthi a 6-4, 7-5 loss at No. 6 singles.

"They proved to be a little bit too strong for us," Dancer said. "It's just tough to say what might have made the difference (Sunday). We ran into a hot team."

Although the Illini were "whooped pretty good" by Wake Forest on March 20 in Winston-Salem, N.C., in a 4-0 regular season loss, Dancer said Sunday's rematch was never about redemption.

"It all changes when it's the NCAA tournament," he said of the first-ever meeting between the two foes in the national tournament. "You focus completely on the team in front of you. There is no redemption or revenge. It's win or you're done. It's that simple."

Still, though, the Deacons were the third team the Illini played for the second time this season.

Ohio State swept Illinois both in the regular season (April 14 in Columbus, Ohio) and the championship match of the Big Ten tournament (April 29 in Iowa City, Iowa).

The Illini beat TCU twice, including a 4-0 triumph in Friday's Round of 16 match in the NCAA tournament.

Despite Sunday's bitter end, Dancer was sentimental afterward, especially when it came to talking about seniors like Hiltzik and Vukic and their accomplishments over the past four seasons.

"I feel honored to be the coach of this university and this program," Dancer said. ... "These (seniors) are guys who have been through so many things with us. They've won Big Ten titles. They've been to the NCAA tournament every year and this is the first time in a number of years that we pushed past the Round of 16. That's a credit to those guys and everything they have been wanting.

"I feel bad for them. This is also a fresh start for all those guys ... (Vukic) and Aron are starting their pro careers and I can't wait to be behind them all the way."

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis