Alabama wins national championship
CLEVELAND -- Alabama's women's gymnastics team was ranked second in the preseason coaches' poll.
The Crimson Tide proved the voters wrong Saturday by winning their first NCAA championship since 2002.
"I guess my peers were off by one spot," Alabama coach Sarah Patterson said with a smile. "But it appears that they knew, no matter what, we'd put it all together by the end of the year.
"I wasn't so sure because my first reaction when I saw us that high was, 'Are you kidding me?' "
Alabama's performance in the final was no joke, scoring 197.650 points to edge defending national champion UCLA (197.375) at Cleveland State's Wolstein Center. It was the Crimson Tide's fifth crown in the 30-year history of the event.
Oklahoma (197.25), Nebraska (196.725), Utah (196.5) and Michigan (196.425) rounded out the field at the Super Six.
"We knew we were neck and neck with UCLA the whole way, but we stayed really focused on our team," said Alabama junior Geralen Stack-Eaton, who scored a team-high 39.475 in the all-around. "Our fans were just amazing cheering, but we didn't pay much attention to anything else."
The title was decided in dramatic fashion as the Crimson Tide and Bruins ended the day on the same half of the competition floor.
UCLA was on the balance beam, while Alabama began the floor exercise holding a 0.275-point lead. The crowd of 4,573 roared after each performance, peaking when Stack-Eaton (9.925) and senior Kayla Hoffman (9.95) mathematically clinched first place in closing out the Crimson Tide's rotation.
"It was a long road, but this team blossomed and turned into something beautiful," Hoffman said. "I can't think of a better way to end it."
Alabama, which finished third behind UCLA and Oklahoma last season, also posted the top score in the Saturday preliminaries. Their fifth team title -- all with Patterson at the helm -- ranks fourth all-time behind Georgia (10), Utah (nine) and UCLA (six).
"This is the expectation at the University of Alabama, but it's been a long time coming," the 33rd-year coach said, pointing toward the national championship trophy. "We've been so close for the last nine years [finishing second three times], but these girls put it together and left nothing out on the floor.
" 'Enjoy the Ride' was their slogan for the season, and I think we're enjoying the ride right now."
NCAA all-around champion Kylee Botterman of Michigan posted the best score of the day at 39.575. Stack-Eaton was second, while UCLA's Olivia Courtney (39.425) and Alabama's Kim Jacob (39.425) tied for third.
The top individual event mark was a 9.95 recorded by UCLA's Tauny Frattone (vault), Alabama's Diandra Milliner (vault), Michigan's Trish Wilson (bars), Nebraska's Jamie Schleppenbach (vault), Oklahoma's Natasha Kelley (bars), Jacob (beam), and Hoffman (floor and vault) .
"This is my 29th straight NCAA championship and I want you to know that the competition has never been any tighter or any tougher," Patterson said. "There were a lot of great teams on the floor tonight."
Utah co-coach Megan Marsden agreed, saying, "The level of competition continues to grow, which can only help grow our great sport, just like coming to Cleveland should."
The Utes are the only team to qualify for all 30 NCAA championships, which are being held at a neutral site for the first time. The first three sessions have drawn a total paid attendance of 9,896.
The event concludes Sunday with the individual event finals beginning at 1 p.m. ET.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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