CHAMPAIGN — The past year was filled with several ups and downs for Illini fans. We break down the Top 10 Illinois athletics storylines staring with No. 10-6.
After finishing the 2016 season 17-14, the Illini missed the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in the last ten years. The Illini won three of their last four matches, including a win over an Ohio State — a team that made the tournament. Twelve out of the Illini’s 14 losses were against other selected teams. The resurgence after its mid-season slump, however, was not enough to send Illinois to the postseason.
The Illini finished conference play in a three-way tie for fifth and a Big Ten tie-breaker gave the Illini their first tournament bid since 2010. Under first-year head coach Tyra Perry, the Illini posted a 36-23 record despite a number of off-the-field issues. The Illini’s season came to an end at the Lexington Regional in a loss to Kentucky.
8. Men’s Gymnastics/Brandon Ngai
At number eight for Illinois Athletics is none other than Illini gymnast Brandon Ngai. The California-native capped off his sophomore campaign with a national title. At just 17, Ngai is the youngest NCAA athlete to ever win a national championship, and his finals score of 15.450 was an NCAA-best.
“Most importantly I was really satisfied with it,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t have done any better with it, so no matter how it ended up, I was 100-percent satisfied.”
Ngai helped lead the Illini Men’s team to a fourth place finish at the NCAA championships.
7) Illini at the Olympics
From the national stage to the international one and there was no shortage of Illini athletes on it in 2016. Our number seven slot goes to the Summer Olympics in Rio and it’s orange and blue ties. Seven former or current Illini were selected to represent their native countries in the Rio Games in sports ranging from tennis and golf, to track and field. Among them, sophomore hurdler Pedrya Seymour. Representing the Bahamas, Seymour placed sixth in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 12.76 seconds.
6. I-Mar’s back-to-back titles
Rounding out the first half of our Top Ten Illini storylines is Illinois wrestler Isaiah Martinez. The reigning national champion won his second consecutive title in the 157-pound weight division in dramatic fashion, avenging his only collegiate loss to Penn State’s Jason Nolf.
“You know, those kind of moments are something that I’m never going to be able to replace in my entire life,” Martinez said. “So I’m glad to come away with a win and I look forward to future matchups.”
The All-American finished the 2015-16 season with a 64-1 career record, putting him at number one in the program’s all-time winning percentage.