Michigan, Stanford, Illinois advance to NCAA finals
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Big Blue is back in men's gymnastics.
After losing the No. 1 ranking following a couple of late-season stumbles, Michigan rebounded with a third-place finish Thursday in the NCAA championship qualifying round to join Stanford and Illinois in the finals.
Oklahoma, going for a third straight national title, qualified later Thursday night as defending all-around champion Jonathan Horton delivered another solid performance.
With a partisan crowd cheering their every move, tournament host Penn State led the evening session with 218.9, followed by Oklahoma (218.6) and Minnesota (216.9).
Michigan edged No. 1 Ohio State 215.35 to 215.25 for third in the first qualifying session.
Six teams competed in each preliminary round, with the top three in each section advancing to the finals Friday night.
"Whew! We made it," a relieved Michigan coach Kurt Golder said.
The Wolverines were No. 1 most of the year until getting knocked off last month by the Buckeyes to end the regular season.
Then Michigan finished a disappointing fourth at the Big Ten championships, which were won by Ohio State.
The Buckeyes rose to No. 1 and coach Miles Avery hoped to get his squad back into the NCAA finals following a disappointing 2006. That's when Ohio State's streak of NCAA final-round appearances was snapped at 25.
Now, Avery has a new streak he'd rather not own.
"We just again -- two years in a row -- had a terrible meet at the wrong time," Avery said. "But we did everything right in terms of our planning. ... It's obviously a tremendously disappointing season not finishing the way we should have."
The Buckeyes were undone in part when senior Willie Ito slipped off the pommel horse and fell off the high bar. Ito scored 7.45 on the high bar, far below his season average of 9.31.
Ohio State still had a slight shot of advancing to the finals in the last rotation after Michigan's Justin Laury scored a subpar 7.45 on his parallel bar routine.
It was left to Andrew Elkind, the Wolverines' last competitor, to get Michigan into the finals. Elkind said an assistant coach told him he needed a 9.0 on the parallel bars -- and that was before Laury slipped up.
"Then Justin ... falls off," Elkind said, "and I was like 'I'm going to have to do it."'
After his 9.05 was posted, Elkind did a little dance, swung off a parallel bar and exchanged high-fives with teammates.
It wasn't Michigan beating Ohio State in football, but for Elkind, it was just as sweet.
"I was so happy, I jumped out of my body," he said.
Stanford finished first in the early qualifying session at 216.35, with Illinois .05 behind in second.
The Cardinal excelled on the rings, scoring a season-high 38.25 as a team. No Cardinal scored lower than 9.1, with Bryant Hadden leading the team with a 9.7.
"The rings was awesome," the sophomore said. "We know we have one of the strongest ring lineups in the country."
Then coach Thom Glielmi looked up from a score sheet and interjected by just saying "The."
"The strongest ring lineup in the country," Hadden corrected himself. "Really, our goal was to set the bar on how to do rings."
Wes Haagensen paced Illinois after scoring season highs on rings (9.7) and floor exercises (9.65). As a team, the Illini scored 37.95 on the floor, also a season high.
Later Thursday, Horton scored less than 9.0 on his first two rotations, including an 8.5 on the high bar after missing the bar on a turn and falling to the mat.
But he rebounded nicely with a 9.65 on the floor exercises and a 9.8 on the rings -- events in which Horton won individual crowns last year.
Penn State impressed with team season highs on the floor and vault.
The Nittany Lions' Tommy Ramos, the nation's top performer on the rings, didn't disappoint. His nifty routine ended with Ramos pumping his right fist in the air to cap a nice night for Penn State.
"We're going to get some rest and be back for a slugfest tomorrow,'' Penn State gymnast Matt Cohen said.
With a third-place showing that earned a trip to the finals, Minnesota coach Mike Burns smiled in his return to his alma mater. Burns graduated from Penn State in 1981.
"We're sitting here in the interview room, microphones, name tags," he told the well-wisher over his cell phone before a news conference. "This is big!"
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press