Illini capture 5th-best score in program history

If the No. 20 Illinois women’s gymnastics team can perform on the beam like it did Saturday night, it can expect a lot more potential record-setting nights.

The Fighting Illini, propelled by a season-high 49.100 on the beam, defeated Minnesota, 196.325-195.325, in Minneapolis, Minn. The team score was the fifth best in the program’s history.

“We finally did what we know what we’re capable of doing,” junior Melissa Fernandez said. “We were able to do what we’ve been doing in practice this year. It’s a mental thing, and we had a tight mental mind-set and just hit our stuff. It went really well.”

The Illini were led by the junior duo of Allison Buckley and Fernandez, as the team picked up its third meet title of the season. Buckley won the vault title with a 9.850 on her way to capturing the all-around crown, scoring a 39.400, while Fernandez took first place on the bars, tallying a 9.875, and second in the all-around, posting a 39.325.

Senior Sarah Schmidt took the floor title, tying her season-high score 9.925.

“(Allison) will tell you she felt pretty good on two events and all right on the others,” head coach Bob Starkell said. “But Allison was Allison. She performed well on a good level and really was in good company. It takes some pressure off her to see the team is doing well, so with the team doing well she was able to go out and perform.”

Fernandez reset her personal career-best score in the all-around for the fourth time in five meets.

“Melissa gets better each season — and each meet,” Starkell said. “She is doing everything right now, and it’s a nice sign for her that she’s improving each and every week.”

A season-long struggle on the beam was finally overcome Saturday when the Illini notched their season’s best score. In a season in which the team has topped the 49.000 mark on vault, bars and floor, the beam has been left behind — until Saturday, when the squad posted a 49.100.

“One of our practices this week, we really worked on cleaning up our dance,” Buckley said. “It’s not always about skill, sometimes it’s more about presentation. We critiqued one another and helped point things out, and it really paid off in the beam.”

The trip to Minnesota also marked the sixth time the Illini were on the road in their first eight meets this season. After spending most of the first half of the season away from home, the Illini return home for the final stretch of the season, when they will face off with conference rivals Michigan and Ohio State before battling Missouri.

“Obviously, we’re pretty comfortable at home,” Buckley said. “Not having a travel day is a definite plus, and we get to go into Huff the day before to get a feel for the equipment. So I really think it’s going to be great for us to finish at home.”