URBANA, Ill. -- Illinois found itself down 3-0 against Memphis on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA tournament, as the Tigers were serving match point. What originally looked like the end of the 2014 season turned into one of the best comebacks in the history of the program. In front of more than 500 fans at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, Illinois fought back and defeated Memphis 4-3 to advance to the NCAA championships.
It marked the seventh time in coach Brad Dancer's nine years at the helm that Illinois has reached the Round of 16. The squad booked its ticket to Athens, Georgia via singles victories from Tim Kopinski, Blake Bazarnik, Ross Guignon and Jared Hiltizk, in said order.
"You had a situation where we lost the first set on five of the six courts and even there I thought we would be OK if we kept our composure," Dancer said. "We just kept digging a hole again and again. Then I did feel like if Hiltzik could save those match points and get a break there that would be a huge momentum shift. Man oh man, was it, changed everything right there."
Memphis grabbed the early lead after a very tense and tight doubles round. With Memphis' Ian Chadwell/Johnny Grimal securing a quick 8-1 win against Bazarnik/Julian Childers on court No. 3, the attention of the crowd turned to Tim Kopinski/Guignon on court No. 1 and Hiltzik/Farris Gosea on court No. 2.
Gosea/Hiltzik were up 5-3 versus Connor Glennon/Cedric De Zutter but after Memphis held serve, the Tigers broke the Illini and held serve once more to claim their first lead. Illinois forced a tiebreak which went back and forth until a tie at five, which was when the Tigers broke away for the 7-5 victory.
Memphis then put the Illini against the ropes taking five of the six first sets and quickly gaining straight-set victories on court Nos. 5 and 2 to take a 3-0 lead.
Unrattled from the squad's current predicament, Tim Kopinski stayed the course and got the Illini on the board. Kopinski, who took the first set 6-3 but fell 6-2 in the second, cruised to a 6-0 third set against Grimal.
All eyes then turned to Hiltzik on court No. 1 as Memphis players gathered near, for Connor Glennon was up 5-3 and serving to clinch the match. Yet Hiltzik fought off two match points and broke Glennon which led to a huge momentum shift. Hiltzik then rode that wave of momentum all the way into a 7-6(4) tiebreak victory, forcing a third set.
That momentum and fighting spirit then spread across courts Nos. 4 and 6. After losing the first set 6-2, Blake Bazarnik rallied with a swift 6-0 second set. In the third, Bazarnik was tied with David O'Leary at five games apiece before surging ahead 7-5 for the victory and the Illini's second point.
Next, it was Ross Guignon's turn versus David O'Hare. Both players won a set 6-4 before finding themselves deadlocked at four games each in the third set. Holding serve to go up 5-4, Guignon broke O'Hare to take it 6-4 and tie the overall match up at three.
Meanwhile, back on court No. 1, Hiltzik was dialed in and defeated Glennon 6-1 in the third set to complete the comeback and punch the Illini's ticket to Athens. Overwhelmed with emotion, Hiltzik fell to the ground and simply raised his hands in the air in triumph as the Illini surrounded him.
Illinois also hit a special milestone in the win as the Orange and Blue went undefeated at home (13-0) for the first time since 2004. When counting the final two home matches last season, the Illini have won 15 consecutive at Atkins, which ranks as the fifth highest of all-time.