Illinois men’s gymnastics escapes at home

By James Boyd

The Illinois men’s gymnastics team was victorious against Michigan on Saturday, but the win was not pretty.

After posting a school record 442.300 points against California and Air Force this weekend, Illinois struggled early and often against its conference counterpart. The team was never able to get into a rhythm but edged out Michigan 434.00 to 430.500.

Sophomore Bobby Baker was named the Big Ten Co-Gymnast of Week, following his stellar performance at the U.S. Air Force Academy, but the defending Big Ten Gymnast of the Year fell three times against the Wolverines.

“We had 10 falls. 10 falls. That is not okay,” head coach Justin Spring said. “Yeah, we squeaked away a win … (but) if we want to have any shot at winning a conference title, we can have one or two at most. That’s the max. We blew our falls out of the water today. That’s not going to cut it.”

Spring said he knew something was off with Baker during warmups, and asked the sophomore what was wrong. Baker said he was feeling sick, but still decided to compete. In the future, Spring said that he will have to evaluate Baker more in these situations because even though he knows the sophomore wants to compete, it may not always be in the best interest of the team if he is not feeling up to par.

Sophomore Brandon Ngai was another Illinois standout who did not perform his best Saturday. One of the NCAA’s best pommel horse gymnasts, the 17-year-old event specialist lost his balance midway through his routine, causing him to dismount prematurely. A collective gasp was heard throughout Huff Hall — many Illini fans were expecting him to extend his streak of pommel horse titles to seven.

Scoring a 14.750, Ngai’s streak would come to an end, but his teammates did their best to pick up for the sophomore’s uncharacteristic mistake. Junior Matt Foster earned a 15.250, on his way to the pommel horse crown; and although senior Logan Bradley didn’t take home any event titles on the day, he showed a lot of emotion after his 14.850 performance on the apparatus.

“It’s a combo of relief and excitement … By no means was that my best pommel horse set that I’ve ever done, but (the emotion) kind of floods your body,” Bradley said. “It’s good to be able to run back and kind of get the guys amped up a little bit.”

The most consistency the Illini showed throughout its competition with the Wolverines was on still rings. Junior Tom Gibbs got his squad off to a great start, scoring a solid 14.850. Spring was visibly pleased with his team captain’s performance, pumping his fist when Gibbs stuck his dismount.

“Rings was a high point. A lot of guys did their jobs,” Spring said. “Even Bobby’s routine where he fell on the dismount, his strength has come so far. It’s really where it needs to be.”

Freshman Alex Diab took home the event title with a career-high 15.500, and the 74.950 Illinois managed to score on still rings was its highest score in the event all season.

Diab earned another career-high and title on the floor exercise, scoring 15.450 and finished second in the all-around with a 85.650.

“His nick name is Dad. The guys call him Dad because he brings that maturity and consistency,” Spring said. “In five-up five-count format you crave that consistency … He’s getting better every weekend, making small corrections.”

The victory Saturday moved the Illini to 13-3 on the season and left the Wolverines still in search for their first conference win.

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