NORMAN, Okla. — Trailing by more than two points with two rotations remaining, Illinois coach Justin Spring guided his gymnasts toward the pommel horse, an event in which the Illini had been inconsistent all season.
They picked the right time to post their season-high score in the event. A 60.75 put Illinois within striking distance and the Illini followed with a strong performance on the rings to pass No. 1 Oklahoma on Friday night and win their first NCAA title since 1989.
Led by U.S. Senior National Team members Paul Ruggeri and C.J. Maestes, Illinois posted a team score of 358.85, 1.4 points better than Oklahoma, which failed to win the national title in its home arena. It was Illinois’ third win of the season against the Sooners and the second in as many days.
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Oklahoma’s Jake Dalton took the all-around title.
”This moment has been a long time waiting,” said Spring, a former U.S. Olympic team member who’s in his third season as Illinois’ coach. ”This team is one that truly took ownership of the details and that is not easy to do when you are in a sport that’s based off perfection.”
Illinois has won 10 NCAA titles, but before Friday only one had come since 1958.
After what Spring called a disappointing effort on the high bar, the Illini trailed Oklahoma by 2.05 points with two rotations remaining.
They followed with the top performance of the night on the pommel horse and then posted a 59.45 on the rings — in which they were ranked second nationally — to close the gap.
”We went to pommel horse and turned it on like I’ve never seen them all year,” Spring said. ”They had just amazing routines. Then they finished in an amazing way [on the rings]. I’m so proud of these guys.”
In its last event, the high bar, Oklahoma posted a 57.15, its second-worst score in that event this season and its worst since the season opener.
When it became evident the Illini would win, Oklahoma coach Mark Williams walked across the arena to shake hands with Spring.
Williams said the Sooners, who have 10 freshmen on their 18-man roster, knew they’d have ”to be awesome” on the high bar to have a chance, ”and we were sub-awesome. We didn’t give ourselves the best chance to win there by any means.
”The way the judging had been on rings, it was a little tight. Compared to what we got on high bar (in the semifinals) and what we got on rings, we still had an opportunity, but you have to put the performance out there. We didn’t totally give it away but we really missed two routines.”
Dalton, another U.S. Senior National Team member and the nation’s top-ranked collegiate gymnast, won the individual all-around title with a score of 91. Sam Mikulak of Michigan and Maestes tied for second at 89.7. Dalton’s best event was the vault, in which he posted the best mark, a 15.550. He also finished second in the floor exercise.
”[Friday] was all about the team,” Dalton said. ”I just went out and did my best, but we came up a little bit short.”
Williams compared Dalton to former Oklahoma greats including 1984 Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Jonathan Horton.
”When Jake is having a night like [Friday], I don’t have to worry about him,” Williams said. ”I just tried to make some jokes with him and keep it light and get him to relax. I knew that the crowd was doing all the motivating that he needed. The training behind what he had done is there. He focused in, he got it done.
”We wouldn’t have been anywhere close to a national title without him.”
In the team race, Penn State was third, followed by California, Stanford and Michigan.