Back-to-back: Diab a two-time still rings national champion

 

Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — The door was open for Alex Diab to defend his still rings national championship Saturday night at State Farm Center. Oklahoma’s Yul Moldauer, who was perhaps Diab’s stiffest competition, made just a minor mistake during his routine.

Still, it was enough. And that was with Diab not making it all the way through his set clean, either.

"The whole routine felt great," Diab said. "It felt pretty perfect until the dismount. I took two steps, which is really uncharacteristic of me, but it was still good enough to win."

Diab’s winning score of 14.733 gave him a two-tenths margin of victory on Moldauer and his second straight still rings title. A record-setting win for the Glen Ellyn native as the only Illini in program history with a pair on that event.

The final meet of Diab’s career, though, had a bittersweet ending. He was excited about his individual national championship, but the Illini had their sights set higher than their fifth-place finish. 

"It’s a lot more fun to win when you’re winning with your team," Diab said. 

"We had some mistakes early in the meet, but we fought back. We had a lot of energy the whole time. We finished as strong as we could, and I’m proud of them for that. Even though we didn’t have the best competition as a team, it was something special being at State Farm Center for my last competition."

The Super Six team final did have a dramatic finish, though, with Stanford upsetting Oklahoma for the national championship behind an all-around title by freshman Brody Malone. That snapped a streak of four straight NCAA titles and a run of 121 consecutive victories for the Sooners.

Illinois was essentially out of the hunt for an NCAA championship after two events. The Illini stumbled on parallel bars for a second straight night, and instead of the Friday comeback the meet spiraled with more issues on high bar.

"We just came out a little shaky," Spring said. "I think it got to us, and we continued to let it eat at us. Honestly, we should have easily been third, but we kept having mistakes. It’s just kind of a bitter finish to the year. … This one’s going to sting for a while."

Diab’s second straight still rings title was the bright spot for the night. It also wasn’t decided for sure until Stanford finished its final rotation on the event. Spring said the Cardinal’s Josiah Eng, who finished with a 14.133, only did so because of a few mistakes.

"(Eng) could have been a guy that could take it from him at the end, so we were waiting literally until the last routine to see if Alex did it again," Spring said. "It’s so deserving. That’s at least a big sigh of relief. I’m so proud of that kid. He certainly left a legacy as a leader and as a competitor for our program.

"He’s already undeniably the greatest ring man in our program history, so this just certainly solidifies that even more. He can go home with a smile on his face a little bit tonight, although being a senior on a team that really had hits sights set on some big team finishes he’s going to be a little upset."

Diab also took home All-American honors floor exercise with a 14.333. That was the Illini’s strongest event, with Sebastian Quiana earning All-American honors in fourth (14.633) and Johnny Jacobson doing the same in sixth (14.333). Michael Paradise placed finish on pommel horse (13.900), and freshman Hamish Carter was sixth on high bar (13.933). 

Quiana’s turnaround on floor exercise was some serious redemption and a major bounce back moment for the Illinois junior, who fell once on parallel bars and twice on high bar.

"He’ll be happy about the individual thing, but I know he’s torn apart inside being the guy that had a lot of falls early on," Spring said. "We’ve got to grow from this. I kind of feel like I’m saying the same thing that I did last year. We’ve got to grow from this."

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).