EAST LANSING, Mich. — With another Big Ten series win in the pocket, Illinois baseball finishes its regular season as the hottest team in the conference.
Winners of 14 of their last 18 games, the No. 23 Illini claimed their sixth straight series in league play behind a 5-3 win in Saturday's road finale at Michigan State.
The win also guaranteed Illinois (36-17, 15-9 Big Ten) the No. 3 seed in this week's Big Ten tournament.
Four runs scored on a trio of Illini home runs helped undo the Spartans (20-34, 8-15), who gave up a pair of solo shots to freshman Braden Comia.
Former Centennial standout Kellen Sarver also added an RBI double in the first inning to supply enough run support for two of Illinois' record-setting features: its defense and its closer.
Counting Saturday's win, Illinois finished the season with a .987 fielding percentage in conference games — good for a Big Ten record.
Parkland transfer Garrett Acton also added a Big Ten record to his resume when, using just six pitches to get through the ninth inning, he picked up his 19th save of the season for the Illini.
Momentum aside, Illinois has a short turnaround into its postseason, playing at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the opening game of the Big Ten tournament against sixth-seeded Maryland at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
The advancing team in that game will face the winner between Michigan and Ohio State at 5 p.m. Thursday, while the losing teams will play at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Illini's season ends. To help Illinois softball avoid elimination, Kiana Sherlund did what any senior strives to do.
She took charge.
Her two-run homer in the seventh inning pushed the Illini to a 2-0 walk-off victory over Toledo to start their Saturday and even their NCAA regional ledger to 1-1.
But the same heroics did not replicate later that day in a rematch against Virginia Tech, as a 5-1 loss eliminated Illinois from contention.
Freshman pitcher Sydney Sickels shined in her NCAA debut, allowing just three hits in her complete-game shutout and tying a career high with seven strikeouts from the circle for the Illini.
Illinois (33-25, 9-14 Big Ten) squandered its sixth-inning attempt to lend her run support, leaving two runners stranded.
Then, with two outs, Sherlund delivered on a deep shot that also scored Avrey Steiner, who finished 2 for 3 for the Illini.
The momentum from taking down Toledo (29-28) didn't quite translate into Illinois' second elimination game of the day, though, against Virginia Tech (47-10).
Arcola native Taylor Edwards gave up a leadoff double to Hokies sophomore Al Velazquez and, despite also inducing two outs, issued two walks to load the bases. A wild pitch then allowed Velazquez to score the first run before Edwards, who walking one more in the frame, to escape without any further damage.
It didn't take long for Illinois to pull even in the second inning, as Kailee Powell reached base on a walk and eventually scored on an RBI single from Katie Wingerter.
Edwards, who finished with one strikeout and four walks, regained her composure in the circle until the start of the fifth inning. That's when the Hokies took the Illini senior for a solo home run, a double and a two-run homer to pull ahead 4-1 and force UI coach Tyra Perry to turn to her bullpen.
Senior Danielle Brochu pitched the remaining three innings, yielding one unearned run on three hits and fanning two with no walks.
"It was another tough loss to Virginia Tech," said Perry, whose squad also fell 6-2 to the Hokies on Friday. "We had a great senior class who has shown a lot of leadership throughout our entire season. But in situations like this, all you can ask for are opportunities, and we had those."
In women's golf
Rain delays round. After a rough start to the first round of the NCAA Championships on Friday, the No. 20 Illinois women's golf team was forced to wait.
Severe weather at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday led officials to call the second round after just 12 of 24 teams had teed off. Only 18 golfers managed to play all 18 holes.
As a result of the delay, the championship has been cut down to a 54-hole format from its 72-hole format with all teams playing rounds on both Sunday and Monday.
Illinois will be among the first teams to get started at 10 a.m. this morning, sitting in 16th place with a one-round score of 28-over 320.
Pairings for Monday's final round — which previously would have cut down to the top 15 teams after 54 holes — will be determined by teams' 36-hole scores.
Bing Singhsumalee shot 77 in the first round and leads the Illini individually, tied for a share of 28th.