URBANA – Stacy Schapiro would like to thank the nice folks on the NCAA tournament selection committee.
And not just for including Illinois in the 64-team women's tennis field.
"We were totally on the bubble in terms of whether or not we were going to get in," the Illini senior said. "So when we got in, we were extremely excited.
"And then to see that we were playing Northwestern. I don't think there's another team in the country we would have rather played."
Schapiro and her teammates get their wish at 10 a.m. Saturday, when Illinois (13-10) faces the No. 22 Wildcats (18-4) in the first round. The winner plays the survivor of Saturday's second match between host Arizona State and Northern Arizona at noon Sunday.
Why the eagerness to play a Northwestern team that won both the Big Ten's regular season and tournament titles? Because the Illini, after handing the Wildcats their lone conference defeat (4-3) in February, believe they squandered a prime opportunity to repeat the feat in the Big Ten tournament semifinals May 1.
"That loss is still fresh in our minds," UI sophomore Simone Kung said.
Although Illinois lost 4-1 that day, it extended four of the six singles matches to a third set.
"I think they understand how close they were in the conference tournament," Illini coach Sujay Lama said, "and I think they just want to redeem themselves. There were a lot of matches that we had opportunities to close, and we did not."
Having won four of six singles matches from Northwestern in their first meeting, the Illini know they match up well there. It's doubles that has been the stumbling block for Illinois. The Wildcats won the doubles team point in both previous meetings while going 5-0 (with one match abandoned) in the individual doubles matches.
Not that the Illini are alone.
Northwestern did not lose a doubles team point to a Big Ten school until Wisconsin ended the streak in the finals of the league tournament.
The Wildcat doubles lineup includes the 14th-ranked team of Laura Guignon and Katherine Nasser. The duo has been selected to play in the NCAA Doubles Championships later this month.
"They are a better doubles team," Lama conceded. "They have more depth, doubleswise."
Here again, though, Illinois has reason to thank the NCAA. Unlike the Big Ten, the NCAA conducts singles matches first in its tournament. For the Illini, that order puts their most difficult matchups against NU last.
"Both times we've played them, we've had a really strong showing in the singles," Schapiro said. "If we can do that again, that can carry us into doubles."
One other difference: Each doubles match in NCAA play counts in the team score. In Big Ten play, even if the Illini had picked off one doubles match against the Wildcats, they would have had nothing to show for it in the team score.
That won't be true Saturday. And based on the previous two meetings, Illinois has reason to think it's possible.
Its No. 2 doubles team of Schapiro and Kung lost 9-7 in the first dual against NU and was tied 6-6 at the Big Ten tournament when the match was abandoned because the Wildcats already had scored the clinching team point.
"We've been working a lot on doubles this week," Schapiro said. "It's what our focus has really been on, so we feel prepared."
And not just physically, Lama hopes.
"I think it all starts with expectations," said the first-year UI coach, whose team has won nine of its last 11 duals. "Are we just happy to be there, or do we want to shoot for something sweeter than that?
"I think we have pretty much convinced the team that, given the way we are playing right now, anything can happen."