Michigan advances to Big Ten Tournament semifinals, but once again falls to Illinois

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By Matthew Kipnis, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 27, 2014

Coming into the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament in East Lansing, the Michigan men’s tennis team was riding a season-high five-match winning streak. Having found consistency in their singles game, it seemed the Wolverines were capable of returning to the finals against No. 2 Ohio State.

However, No. 12 Illinois (9-1 Big Ten, 22-7 overall) proved to be Michigan’s kryptonite as it once again defeated the Wolverines, 4-0.

Losing to the Fighting Illini in the tournament has become all too common for Michigan (16-12, 6-5) as this marks the fourth time in the last five tournaments that Illinois has eliminated the Wolverines and the third time Michigan has failed to record a point.

“We wanted to get better than last year and have a chance to get in the finals and play for a Big Ten Tournament title, but we didn’t get there,” said Michigan coach Bruce Berque. “Overall there were more positives than negatives, so I was happy with that, but we lost to a good team.”

The Wolverines entered the tournament as the six-seed after finishing their regular season with three straight conference wins.

In the first round on Friday, Michigan claimed the doubles point and the first three singles matches in straight sets in a dominating 4-0 win over No. 11 seeded Wisconsin.

The Badgers were playing without their No. 1 and No. 4 starters, allowing Michigan to clinch the match early on. The Wolverines were able to rest some of their starters, including senior Shaun Bernstein, so that they did not exert all their energy in the match.

“I think it helped for us to come out strong because we had to play three matches in this tournament even though we were hoping to play four,” Berque said. “The fact that we had an easier one in the first round allowed us to be a little fresher for the Penn State match, which was a pretty brutal match.”

The quarterfinal match was delayed and pushed indoors due to rain. Michigan found itself in an uphill battle early on after losing the doubles point to No. 3 seed Penn State. Such a predicament was new for the Wolverines after they won 17 of their 25 doubles points in the regular season.

The 24th-ranked Nittany Lions defeated Michigan 5-2 and claimed the doubles point earlier in the year.

“(The win) was a little surprising,” said junior Alex Petrone. “We had different matchups going into playing them in the tournament so I liked these matchups we had rather than in the (regular) season and it worked out to our benefit.”

After dropping the doubles point, Petrone, a first-team All-Big Ten selection, won his match at No. 1 singles over Leonard Stakhovsky who had defeated Petrone previously.

The turning point in the match was when junior Vlad Stefan won his match, allowing Michigan to take a 3-1 lead. Immediately after Penn State won at No. 2 singles, Franks sealed the victory. The Wolverines won four of the first five singles matches to upset the Nittany Lions.

In the semifinals, Michigan found itself in its third matchup of the season against the Fighting Illini. Once again, the Wolverines found themselves in a 1-0 hole after losing the doubles point, yet this time, Michigan could not pull off the comeback.

Illinois won the first three singles matches in straight sets to win the match 4-0.

“Illinois played well and we didn’t have enough guys play well,” Berque said. “Overall, we won two rounds and did what we needed to make sure we can play in the NCAA Tournament, so that was a good accomplishment.”

Because of its two wins this weekend, including the upset over a top-25 team, Michigan most likely punched its ticket to the first round. However, officially, the Wolverines will have to wait until Tuesday for the NCAA Selection Show to find out its fate for certain.