WCIA — This year saw plenty of great performances through all Illinois sports. We continue counting down our list of the Top 10 Fighting Illini storylines of 2021, from number 5 all the way to the top spot.
THIS YEAR SAW PLENTY OF GREAT PERFORMANCES THROUGH ALL UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS SPORTS.
TODAY WE CONTINUE COUNTING DOWN OUR LIST OF THE TOP 10 FIGHTING ILLINI STORYLINES OF 2021.
WCIA3 SPORTS DIRECTOR BRET BEHERNS TAKES US THROUGH FROM FIVE ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP SPOT.
#5: Men’s Tennis
The Illini won their first Big Ten title since 2015 and just the second time in head coach Brad Dancer’s career by knocking off Ohio State, propelling them into the NCAA Tournament where they lost to No. 1 ranked Florida in the Sweet 16. They finished the year 23-3 with a win over No. 1 USC, and both Aleks Kovacevic and Sophi Montsi were named All-Americans.
#4: Men’s Golf
The Illini won their sixth straight Big Ten title, and 11th in the last 12 years, leading them to a run to the quarterfinals at the NCAA tournament.
“This team is a bunch of guys who I’d take to any bar fight,” said senior Michael Feagles. “Will fight you tooth and nail, they just hate losing.”
Michael Feagles finished fourth in the country in the stroke play event, with Illinois taking fifth as a team losing to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight.
Upsetting the defending national champs on their home court was the highlight of the season, with Illinois taking down No. 7 seed Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16.
“For us it’s almost a comfort thing,” said head coach Chris Tamas. “All right, you want to cheer against us? That feeds us and we’ve got a whole bunch of competitors, I know that.”
The Illini finished the season 22-12, losing to Nebraska in the Austin, Texas Regional.
In head coach Bret Bielema’s first year on the job, the Illini finished 5-7 with upset wins at No. 7 Penn State and No. 20 Minnesota. They also beat in-state rival Northwestern for the first time since 2014 but for as good as those wins were, close losses to Rutgers, Maryland, Purdue and UTSA were as equally disappointing. All four were one score games that could have gone either way, as the Illini fell one game short of qualifying for a bowl game.
“To come away one game shy is to be quite honest infuriating for me because the expectation is to be playing in a postseason game but more importantly to be practicing now,” said Bielema.
Just last week, Bielema signed his first full recruiting class at Illinois, signing 10 in-state players to lay the foundation for what’s to come.
#1: Men’s Basketball
The Illini won their first Big Ten title since 2005 taking down Ohio State in the tournament finals. Despite finishing with the most conference wins Illinois didn’t win the regular season championship, that went to Michigan, who the Illini beat by 23 in their only meeting in Ann Arbor. Illinois earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, making its first appearance since 2013, but it was short lived with an upset loss to Loyola in the second round.
“I told my team, keep your heads high,” said junior Ayo Dosunmu. “Heads high. We didn’t get it done but at the end of the day, you’ve got to take your medicine.”
Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn were both named All-Americans, declaring for the NBA Draft. Dosunmu turned pro going 38th overall to his hometown Bulls, Cockburn decided to return for a highly anticipated junior season.