Illinois reaches finals

Illinois reaches finals

NORMAN, Okla. — If Justin Spring's Illini compete tonight like they did on Thursday, they will be bringing home an NCAA title.

Well, almost.

"If we're going to be the team that wins, we're going to have to do a little bit better," Spring said.

Illinois is seeking its first NCAA team title since 1989.

The No. 4-ranked Illini scored the highest point total in the opening round. Their 356.25 total edged host and No. 1 seed Oklahoma by .05 points.

"What happened tonight was just perfect," Spring said. "We wanted to have the first spot. We didn't want to go 100 percent. We creeped out the win."

Illinois easily advanced to tonight's final, which will again be on Oklahoma's home venue, the Lloyd Noble Center.

The Illini and Sooners dominated the evening session. California was the third team to reach the finals, scoring 351.15. Minnesota was fourth, almost eight points outside a qualifying score.

"The guys competed so casual, so comfortable today," Spring said.

In the afternoon session, Michigan, Penn State and Stanford advanced.

Spring said the final six were the ones he expected. Penn State entered the meet ranked No. 2 and Stanford was No. 3. Michigan checked in at No. 6 and Cal was No. 8.

The six teams will start from scratch in tonight's finals. Because it had the top overall score, Illinois gets to pick its first event.

"It's going to be a mental game tonight," Spring said.

With enough of a cushion to guarantee a spot in the finals, Spring was able to hold out a couple of his top gymnasts in select events.

"We were able to rest some guys," Spring said. "This is a luxury very few teams have."

Spring had special praise for his two anchors, senior Paul Ruggeri and freshman C.J. Maestas.

"Our anchors have been fantastic," Spring said. "I have to give a shout-out to Chad Mason on pommel horse. He stepped up in a major way today."

Mason had the top score on the pommel horse in the evening session (15.2). Maestas had the top score on the rings (15.45). Ruggeri won the high bar with a 15.7.