SUGAR GROVE, Ill. - Illinois had just about two hours to savor its NCAA quarterfinals win over USC. But Mike Small and his three veterans have been in this situation before -- and know they must refocus quickly to get another chance at the ultimate, elusive prize.
"We just beat one of the top teams in the country," Small said. "Now, we got to do it again."
The No. 3 seed Illini defeated the No. 6 seed Trojans 3-1-1 (though USC entered the NCAA Championships as the No. 2 team in the latest coaches poll) in the NCAA quarterfinals at Rich Harvest Farms on Tuesday morning to advance to their fourth Final Four in five years.
Besides a few hugs, a few smiles and a few fist pumps to the largely orange-and-blue crowd, the Illini had little time to celebrate though. They take on No. 2 seed Oklahoma starting at 1:30 p.m. CT after the Sooners defeated Baylor in a playoff hole.
Illinois took the first three matches against USC to clinch the victory with two golfers still on the course. But the match didn't go that easy. Edoardo Lipparelli was the only Illini to lead at the turn. But the Illini again finished strong to survive and advance.
"I think we were a little sluggish," Small said. "I mean this is a long week emotionally and mentally. It's something we've learned over the years. You're up at 4 o'clock in the morning a few days this week. You're at the golf course all day. We just finished last night on a really incredible high. Then you go back, sleep for five hours and do it all over again. It takes some practice. It takes some getting used to. I think our young guys were a bit sluggish today, but, man, we fought back. We just kept fighting."
Lipparelli defeated Sean Crocker, No. 9 in the Golfweek individual rankings, 1-UP to give the Illini the early lead. The Illini sophomore never trailed in his match, but a birdie on the penultimate hole (hole 8, since the the match started at the 10th hole) gave him the ultimate match-winner.
Freshman Giovanni Tadiotto was down two to Andrew Levitt on hole 10 but battled back to take a 1-UP lead on 17 and held on to win. Illini junior Nick Hardy -- ranked No. 12 individually -- also trailed by two to No. 10 Rico Hoey within the first two holes, but never trailed on the final nine holes. Hoey's missed putt on 18 sealed the individual victory for Hardy and the match for the Illini.
If the match hadn't ended there, the Illini still had a chance to win. Freshman Michael Feagles had battled back from four-down at the turn to one down at 17. Junior Dylan Meyer had battled back from three-down after 10 holes to all square with a chip in on 16.
Illinois has lost in the NCAA semifinals the last two seasons, falling to USC in 2015 and eventual national champion Oregon in 2016. The Illini finished as runner-up in 2013, falling to Alabama.
The Illini will have to make the quick turnaround to get their second swing at the elusive national title.
"Last year, we had a long delay in between the first and second (rounds)," Small said. "They pushed the tee times back for some reason, and that's always a tough thing. We got to keep the kids off their cell phone. You got to keep them from reading Twitter and reading that stuff. We just got to keep them in their own mind. But you want them to have fun. You want them to stay loose too. You got to stay in the moment because it starts all over again."
Semifinal pairings (with Golfweek individual rankings)
102 Edoardo Lipparelli vs. 130 Blaine Hale
297 Giovanni Tadiotto vs. 53 Max McGreevy
105 Michael Feagles vs. 149 Rylee Reinerston
12 Nick Hardy vs. 51 Grant Hirschman
16 Dylan Meyer vs. 98 Brad Dalke