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Illinois still confident about NCAA Tournament chances

The Illini have lost six of their last eight games.

Jonathan Bonaguro

Illinois only has three weekends left in the season to right the ship, and it has been a rough going the last two weeks.

Losers of six of their past eight games, the Illini dropped two of three in a weekend series at No. 15 Indiana. The teams split the first two games before Indiana dominated in the rubber match Sunday.

“No. 1 ERA in the country, and their starter threw a lot of strikes and their bullpen came in and shut it,” said Illinois right fielder Jack Yalowitz.

Illinois (25-14) cannot afford to drop any more midweek non-conference games, and the next one up is against Southern Illinois on Tuesday. Illinois’ RPI currently sits at 48, which would have them on the cusp of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb says he enjoys the feeling of his team’s back being against the wall at this point in the season.

“There’s always pressure, and whenever you’re involved in athletics, the only time it’s really fun is when there is pressure,” Hartleb said. “That’s part of it: to win championships and get into championship play, and you need to play extremely well. Every game matters, and we just need to continue to work hard.”

The Illini won two of three games at Southern Illinois in March, and Hartleb is an alma mater of the Salukis’ program.

“There are a lot of people I know from there, and I know their head coach well,” Hartleb said. “Their announcer was announcing when I was a player, and it’s always fun. There’s always a few games in the year I don’t root for (SIU), and this will be one of them.”

Cyrillo Watson (0-1, 5.68 ERA) will get the start for the Illini. RHP Dylan Givens (4-0, 2.50 ERA) will take the mound for the Salukis (24-20, 7-5 Missouri Valley).

First baseman Bren Spillane hit three home runs in a 16-6 win over Southern on March 17. Spillane, who has 16 home runs and a .425 batting average, went 2-for-10 with three walks against Indiana.

Hartleb says opposing teams are beginning to gameplan around his bat.

“(Spillane)’s having really quality at bats and still getting his fair share of hits, but they’re pitching him differently,” Hartleb said. They’re going out and making sure that he doesn’t beat them in a game, and we knew that would happen. (Second baseman) Michael Massey has done a good job behind him, and he just has to take each at bat one at bat at a time.

“If he gets a pitch to hit and score some runs quickly, he’ll take care of that. If they continue to pitch around him, he’ll continue to take his base, and Michael will boot him around.”

After the matchup with Southern, Illinois welcomes Ohio State to Illinois Field for a three-game weekend series.

“We’ve just got to keep playing well,” Yalowitz said. “We’ve kind of struggled the past two weekends. If the season ended today we’d be in the NCAA Tournament, so the key for us is to win some games and stick to the process.

“I’m not worried about this team, we’re going to do just fine and make the NCAA Tournament and go from there.”