Small's squad in Final Four
MILTON, Ga. — On Friday afternoon, Alex Burge clinched a historic win for Illinois golf.
To celebrate, he retreated to the team’s suburban Atlanta hotel and ...
“Laundry,” the sophomore from Bloomington said. “I’m out of clothes. When you run out of clean clothes, that’s a good thing.”
Mike Small’s 15th-seeded Illini crashed the NCAA Championships on Sunday — and refuse to leave.
Friday’s 3-2 win against defending national champ Texas in the quarterfinals of the match-play portion of the tournament was the latest statement by a program with as much punch as Thomas Pieters off the tee.
The Illini, who meet No. 1 Cal at 9 a.m. Saturday, are assured of no worse than a third-place tie. The previous high-water mark was delivered by the 1941 Illini, who finished fourth in a much different-looking NCAA tournament.
“You make the Final Four in golf, that’s pretty special,” Small said. “The guys are believing.”
The Illini’s magical spring march started with their fifth consecutive Big Ten tournament championship, continued with their first NCAA regional title and carried over to the 54-hole team portion of the NCAA finals. But Friday’s match-play thriller might have been the best of the bunch.
“This is cool,” Burge said. “Getting to the Final Four is pretty awesome.”
While Burge’s 3 & 2 romp against Cody Gribble officially advanced Illinois, it was a freshman’s long putt moments earlier that did in the Longhorns.
One-up on Texas’ Toni Hakula heading to the 18th, the UI’s Charlie Danielson faced a 20-footer to save par and win his match. Like another Illini from Wisconsin, Danielson delivered a putt Steve Stricker certainly would endorse.
“It looked good from the start,” Danielson said.
“That was clutch,” Small said.
“As soon as it went in, I went with the big first-pump,” Danielson said.
Normally a sound sleeper, Danielson woke up early Friday morning and “couldn’t get back to sleep.” Nerves, he said, came back into play again on No. 18. Small chatted up the freshman, telling him how important a straight drive would be.
“So I hit it right,” Danielson said.
But Danielson recovered, chipping back into the fairway, landing his third shot on the green and sinking a putt that will be talked about in the hallways of Demirjian Golf Facility for some time.
Small called it a “Mongolian Reversal,” a term used during match play when a player wins a hole that looked to be lost.
“We made history,” Danielson said. “We’ve carried momentum from the Big Tens to the (NCAA) regional to here, and we’re going to keep going.”
Freshman Thomas Detry also won for the Illini, pulling ahead of Julio Vegas at No. 8 and never losing his slim lead.
The Illini, who produced NCAA individual champs in 2010 (current PGA Tour member Scott Langley) and 2012 (current junior Pieters), are enjoying team success this year. A lot of it.
“We agreed before the tournament that we were not going to play one shot under duress, not one shot under fear all week,” Small said. “We’re not playing fearful golf, which is a hard thing to do.”
The smilin’ Illini face their biggest test in the top-ranked Bears, who edged Arizona State 3-2 on Friday. Georgia Tech and Alabama meet in the other semifinal at Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course.
Small considers Cal — with a lineup consisting of five Top 25-ranked players — an elite program worthy of its No. 1 ranking.
“We’re going to have fun,” he said. “If you don’t have fun tomorrow, competing against what I think is the most dominant team in 50 years, then I don’t know what you can enjoy.”
Small had to fulfill media requests and sit through a seeding meeting after Friday’s win before giving his Illini a post-Texas and pre-Cal pep talk. As if they needed one.
“Starting tomorrow, rankings don’t matter,” Burge said. “It’s a completely new day. And we can compete with anybody.”
Small expected this team — starting two freshmen and two sophomores — to do just that. In 2014.
“Next year was supposed to be our year,” he said. “Maybe we’ve jump-started that a little bit.”
And then there were four ...
No. 22 Illinois and No. 1 Cal tee off in the match-play semifinals at 9 a.m. Saturday.
Thomas Detry (UI) vs. Michael Weaver, 9 a.m.
Charlie Danielson (UI) vs. Joel Stalter, 9:09 a.m.
Thomas Pieters (UI) vs. Max Homa, 9:18 a.m.
Brian Campbell (UI) vs. Michael Kim. 9:27 a.m.
Alex Burge (UI) vs. Brandon Hagy, 9:36 a.m.