Illinois stumbles but does enough to make finals

Illinois stumbles but does enough to make finals

CHAMPAIGN – While some of their fans were biting their fingernails to the bone, the Illinois men''s gymnastics competitors were taking a deep breath and relaxing.

The top-ranked Illini advanced to tonight''s team finals at the NCAA Championships, but only after a few anxious moments – even if they were experienced mostly by the folks in the Assembly Hall stands.

The Illini finished third out of six squads in the evening session, securing the last qualifying spot for the team finals. With four of the six events complete, they were fourth.

"Today we were really relaxed, maybe a little too much," Illinois'' Adam Pummer said. "We came into it knowing that all we had to do was make some stuff and we could get to the second day. We weren''t trying to go all out and blow our load."

If nothing else, it injected some drama into a session that figured to have little. Illinois was expected to cruise into the finals, but several shaky routines on the parallel bars and the high bar prevented that route. Ultimately, California finished first with 220.875 points and Ohio State – the Big Ten runner-up behind Illinois – was next at 219.625. Illinois was third at 218.525, followed by Stanford (214.600), Minnesota (214.525) and Nebraska (212.250).

The Illini, California and Ohio State will be joined at 7 tonight by first-session winners Penn State, Michigan and two-time defending champion Oklahoma. Scores do not carry over to the finals, so the rough start won''t have a statistical impact.

"I told the guys they should not be worried about it," UI coach Yoshi Hayasaki said. "We had some rough spots today, but I know we''ll correct that. It''s almost like a good practice round for us."

The Illini started fine, posting good scores on the still rings and the vault. But they sputtered on the parallel bars, scoring a season-low 34.150, and the high bar, where they compiled a season-low 35.675.

"That''s the thing about this sport," Illinois'' Justin Spring said. "It''s a tossup. On any given day, you can have mistakes. This sport is so hard to be consistent."

The Illini had time to regroup, as they had a bye in the rotation after the high bar debacle. They were fourth, narrowly trailing third-place Minnesota, heading to the floor exercise and the pommel horse. The Illini are ranked first nationally in both.

"On the bye, we just relaxed and kept to ourselves and thought about what we were doing," Pummer said. "That got our heads back into it."

It was similar to the Big Ten meet, when Illinois had to rebound after subpar efforts on parallel bars and high bar.

"We have a habit of rebounding," Spring said. "I guess that''s our forte. We get ourselves into a hole, and then we come back strong. If we''re going to win this championship, we need to not allow ourselves to get into that hole initially."

Fortunately for the Illini, floor exercise was a beacon. Bob Rogers (9.25), Pummer (9.6) and Spring (9.725) polished off solid routines in succession to complete that rotation, and all six competitors on pommel horse scored in the 9s, led by Ben Newman (9.625) and pommel horse All-American Peter Shostchuk (9.6).

"I don''t know what the guys were thinking today," Hayasaki said. "Maybe they were thinking about tomorrow. But certainly today was not one of the best performances."

Illinois is looking for its first national crown since 1989. It finished fifth a year ago.

"We''re just happy to be in the top three and competing tomorrow," Hayasaki said. "It''s a brand-new day tomorrow. Anything can happen."

You can reach Tony Bleill at (217) 351-5605 or via e-mail at tbleill@news-gazette.com.

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