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In first NCAAs, Illinois has chance to make match play

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Last month, Illinois led the Big Ten Championship late in the final round before playing its final five holes in 6 over and ending up three shots back of winner Ohio State.

“It was a very, very quiet bus ride home,” said Illini coach Renee Slone. “We were right there and just didn’t finish well. But over the course of the next couple of days, everyone was like, ‘How is this going to make us better?’”

Added junior Tristyn Nowlin: “Every member of our team is trained to let it hit you in the moment and then use it as a learning experience.”

Perhaps that explains how Illinois, competing this week in its first NCAA Women’s Championship, bounced back after a brutal opening round at Blessings Golf Club.

The Illini counted an 80 and 84 in the first round of their championship debut, carding a 28-over score that left them well back. But in the course of two days, Illinois has righted the ship, shooting 4 over to move into 14th place, just nine shots back of eighth, entering Monday’s final round.

“This is a golf course that the more you see it, the more you learn, and we had a lot of learning to do after the first round,” Slone said.

It didn’t take long for Illinois to discover that Blessings was a beast, but the Illini also have adapted well. Freshman Crystal Wang was 12 shots better in the second round, carding a 1-under 72, while Nowlin and freshman Katie Hallinan each shot 74.

“You can’t fight this course,” Nowlin said. “You have the value the bogey.”

Even with three freshmen in the lineup, Illinois has played within themselves pretty much all season. That mature golf has continued this week. When play was suspended Saturday because of severe storms, Nowlin and her teammates had just finished warming up. Nowlin was actually on a shuttle to the 10th tee.

Instead of playing golf, Illinois spent the afternoon in the clubhouse, passing the time by playing games. Make no mistake, this team likes having fun. But it also means business.

“We have higher expectations than we’ve ever had,” Nowlin said.

The top eight teams after Monday make match play. Illinois, ranked 20th by Golfstat, has never been in this position before. Most teams in its position would already have been overwhelmed by the moment. Illinois is up for defying the odds.

“We’ve worked hard all year for this,” said Slone, who as a player for Illinois notched three top-10 finishes in the NCAA Championship, including a third-place showing in 1991.

“We set this as the goal, and we want to compete. We are prepared mentally, physically and emotionally, so let’s just enjoy it. Anything can happen in match play. Just get there and the door’s wide open.

“Tomorrow, it’s just fight ‘til the end.”

One of the games the Illini played Saturday involved each player saying one word in succession so that the words form a story. On the golf course this week, Illinois is two words into their NCAA Championship tale.

How it ends, though, remains to be seen.