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Three Illini go low to push team atop leaderboard

May 26—CARLSBAD, Calif. — Mike Small hasn't always been able to say his team has played "Illinois golf" this season. It's been an up and down eight months.

Plenty of highs, including five tournament wins, but also a season not without its struggles for a mostly new-look team.

The last two days at Omni La Costa North Course, though? That's been "Illinois golf." The Illini carded their best team score of the NCAA championship in Sunday's third round and moved into first place at 2-under — six strokes ahead of Virginia.

"They're out there playing golf the way they've learned," Small told reporters. "They understand how they need to play golf themselves and stay true to it and not get distracted and not get pulled off what you need to do to play good. That's the biggest thing in golf kids have trouble with.

"First, they've got to recognize who they are and understand who they are and understand how they can shoot the best score they can. All the media and all the instruction and all the accolades and all the impressions and peoples' opinions get in there, and it makes guys explore and change and tempt themselves when they've just got to play solid golf and be who they are."

Tyler Goecke led Illinois on Sunday shooting a 3-under 69 — a rare sub-70 round through three days of the championship event. Goecke went low on the back nine with four birdies and moved into a tie for seventh overall at 1-under for the tournament.

Piercen Hunt bounced back Sunday after a rough second round with a 2-under 70. Max Herendeen, who is tied for fourth individually, shot a 1-under 71 in the third round. Illinois' fourth counting score was Jackson Buchanan's even-par 72.

The kind of "Illinois golf" Small has been searching for from his team this season.

"This has been one of the least productive in that most of the year," the Illini coach said. "If you look at our wins and losses this year, we beat the No. 1 team in the country a couple times this year but lost to teams outside the top 100 for the first time in a long time. We've had our ups and downs. There's potential there, but we're a young team.

"To come back and do this I think speaks volumes for these guys understanding what our program is about and how we think the game should be played. For them to commit themselves to that — at least the last couple weeks — has been really, really impressive."

Illinois easily cleared the bar for Sunday's first cut, with the top 15 teams advancing to the final round of stroke play Monday. The top eight teams after the fourth round advance to the match play quarterfinals Tuesday.