Fast start fades for UI in title match

Fast start fades for UI in title match

LINCOLN, Neb. — Evan Clark isn't sure he has seen a more routine round of doubles from his Illinois women's tennis team all year than Sunday against Michigan.

Behind wins of 6-1 and 6-2, the Illini smacked the No. 17 Wolverines for the first point of the Big Ten tournament title match at Sid and Hazel Dillon Tennis Center.

"We were in a position to win (the other), too," said Clark, the third-year UI coach. "That first point is huge, and I felt great about our start. ... But I think unfortunately the doubles point woke Michigan up a little bit."

He wasn't wrong. The conference's top team answered Illinois' powerful start with some power of its own, taking four singles matches in straight sets to win 4-1 and send the Illini home with what still proved to be their best finish since 2001.

Though the Illini (16-11) have plenty of momentum carrying them into Monday night's NCAA Selection Show with wins in 10 of their last 12 matches, both losses have happened at the hands of the Wolverines (18-5).

"The confidence is hard to shake," Clark said. "I think they'll bounce back great. (Sunday) was kind of a blip and we'll move forward. We've gotten great momentum over this last month."

That momentum also includes a pair of 4-0 sweeps over Minnesota and Wisconsin in the earlier rounds of the Big Ten tournament, where the Illini's doubles play displayed a similar level of dominance to Sunday.

While the tandem of sophomores Asuka Kawai and Mia Rabinowitz (6-1) broke through first before senior Jaclyn Switkes and sophomore Sasha Belaya (6-2) delivered the clincher, the weekend's showcase saw none of the three pairings drop a set.

In Friday's shutout against the Gophers, sophomore Emilee Duong and senior Daniela Pedraza were the ones to seal the opening point, while the same pair stood to win each of their unfinished matches if not for the swiftness of their teammates.

"We've won a lot of doubles points this year and because of it, we've put ourselves in good positions (to win matches)," Clark said. "(Sunday), we didn't let Michigan have much at all. That was kind of the difference is I thought we handled conditions a lot better this time with the temperature at about 50 degrees and winds of almost 20 mph."

A slow start in singles, Clark said, ultimately fed the end result, even once the Illini started getting back into their matches. The rally came "too little too late," but he said experience of facing Michigan twice suits his team when it comes to its impending NCAA tournament draw.

Whatever team awaits the Illini — which they will learn alongside the men's team Monday night when both squads are together before their end-of-the-year banquet at the I Hotel in Champaign — Clark feels the sting of both losses to the Wolverines will serve to prepare them for the ringer.

"We know we're going to have to beat a team like that to advance in the regional next week," Clark said. "It shows us what level we need to be at to knock off a team like them."

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis
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