Illinois didn’t play its best golf on Monday in the final round of stroke play at the NCAA Championships. Coach Mike Small even had to talk tough to his players late in the round at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.
“But that was exactly what we needed. We needed someone in our face,’’ said junior star Dylan Meyer, who lost out on his chance for the individual title after shooting a 77.
The bottom line is the Illini are still playing for the national championship. They go into Tuesday’s match play quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed and will play No. 6 Southern California. A win would put them against either No. 2 Oklahoma or No. 7 Baylor in the afternoon semifinals. Morning matches tee off at 7 a.m. and the afternoon matches at 1:30 p.m.
The other bracket has morning matches pitting top-seeded Vanderbilt against No. 8 Nevada Las Vegas and No. 4 Oklahoma State against No. 5 Oregon. The title match is at 2:20 p.m. on Wednesday.
Small, who has taken his last 10 teams to the NCAA tournament and guided six of the last seven into the match play climax to the event, said the 17th hole was the key to survival on Monday when 15 teams battled for the eight match play spots.
“We were leaking oil bad. Most of our players had cotton mouth. It was a stressful time,’’ said Small. “We weren’t controlling our space. I told them they had to look at this as a blessing.’’
The players responded, playing the 17th in 1-under-par. Meyer, playing in the fifth spot after going off third in the first three rounds, put some life back into his teammates with a 5-iron approach to the green and a 12-foot birdie putt.
Sophomore Edoardo Lipparelli followed with an eagle at the par-5 18th. His second shot, a 6-iron from 181 yards that he had to bend around a tree, stopped 25 feet from the cup and Lipparelli rolled in the putt to stir up the Illini faithful surrounding the green.
“It was a great experience in front of the crowd. To finish like that is pretty amazing,’’ said Lipparelli, who plans to turn pro as soon as the tournament is over.
That could be on Wednesday if the Illini win both their matches todayand reach the championship match. Last year the Illini lost to eventual champion Oregon in the semifinals when the Ducks enjoyed playing on their home turf. Now the Illini have that advantage, albeit with a young team.
Small is without a senior on this squad, but juniors Meyer (the reigning Western Amateur and Big Ten champion) and Nick Hardy (the Illinois Amateur titleist) are battle-hardened. Two freshmen – Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto – join Lipparelli in rounding out the team.
Small has had stronger teams, but he’s not afraid of the youth that this one possesses. He also had two freshmen on his 2013 team that went to the NCAA title match before losing to Alabama.
“This team is similar to that one,’’ said Small. “We were ranked 40th in the country in March that year. We weren’t very good.’’
But the Illini rallied late to have their best NCAA finish so far. This team is relatively inexperienced as well, but playing close to campus is a plus. Rich Harvest galleries have been dominated by fans dressed in orange all week.
“We try to let the players know that this is a fun thing,’’ said Small. “The fans aren’t out there to judge you, they’re out there to support you.’’
Meyer, who shook off a bout with ulcerative colitis – an inflammation of the large intestine — that hospitalized him for three days immediately before the NCAA regionals, believes he’s healthy and his teammates are ready to finish the job. He wound up tied for sixth as an individual, six strokes behind champion Braden Thornberry of Mississippi, but winning the team title was the top goal all along.
“I feel all right, and now we’re going to get that match play championship,’’ he said. “That’s what we came here to do – play solid golf and win at all cost.’’