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SEC, Pac-12 set for NCAA gymnastics showdown

DULUTH, Ga. — The Pac-12 set the pace. The Southeastern Conference answered the challenge.

Defending champion Alabama, top-seeded Florida and Arkansas gave the SEC the top three spots in Friday night's second semifinal after UCLA led the Pac-12's sweep through the first qualifying meet.

Alabama's 197.675 edged Florida's 197.650 for the top two scores in either session. Arkansas was third at 197.150.

"Our goal ever year is for Alabama to be on the floor the last night with a chance to win a championship," said Alabama coach Sarah Patterson. "To be able to do this again, it never gets old."

UCLA, the No. 2 seed, had the top score, 197.40, in Friday's first semifinal and will be joined by Utah (197.200) and Stanford (197.125) in Saturday's Super Six final.

Florida, trying to win its first championship, led Alabama before having two gymnasts step out of bounds on the floor exercise to end the meet.

"We started out strong on vault and carried that momentum through," Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said.

"Maybe we had too much energy, too much momentum on the floor."

The top three teams from each semifinal advanced to the final.

Utah, a longtime gymnastics power, is in its first year in the Pac-12.

Georgia and Alabama have combined for 15 NCAA championships in the 30-year history of the event, and Florida has five top-five finishes in the last six years. The Gym Dogs couldn't overcome a poor showing on the balance beam and finished fifth with its 196.50 Friday night, behind fourth-place Ohio State (196.525) and ahead of Oregon State (196.475).

UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field said the SEC's traditional show of strength in the NCAA tournament can make other teams feel like outsiders.

"I think all of our programs have experienced being in the Super Six with very heavy SEC representation. And it is a bit odd," she said. "You do feel like you're a foreigner sometimes. ... Walking onto the floor, when the teams are marching out, that's when it really hits you."

This time, the Pac-12 has matched the SEC's three teams in the final.

"With our conference getting immeasurably stronger with Utah here and Stanford, there is a comfort to familiarity," Kondos Field said.

UCLA won the 2010 championship and finished second last year.

Florida was led by all-around champion Kytra Hunter's 39.725 total in the four events. Georgia's Kat Ding was second at 39.650.

Florida, Alabama and Georgia opened the evening session with a show of force. While Alabama was setting a season high with a 49.600 on the balance beam, Georgia set its season high with a 49.400 on the uneven bars.

The Gym Dogs faltered on their next event with a season-low 48.275 on the balance beam. That was too much to overcome, even when Georgia finished with a season-high 49.625 on the vault.

Georgia won a record 10 NCAA championships with Suzanne Yoculan as coach. It hasn't advanced to the Super Six in three seasons with her former assistant, Jay Clark, as head coach.

Utah co-coach Megan Marsden said she enjoys being part of a conference that can compete with the powerful SEC teams.

"Not only are we going, but we're going with a group of people," Marsden said.

"I remember one year we qualified, and we were going against five SEC teams (in the final) and they were in the hallway and did their chant. We didn't even have a chant. We were Mountain West."

Marsden said Utah gymnasts "have already talked about being in the hallway and having their chant" with other Pac-12 teams before Saturday's Super Six.

Utah has won nine NCAA championships but none since 1995. Georgia, UCLA (six) and Alabama (five) are the only other teams to win titles.

"I think we genuinely get very excited about having other Pac-12 teams move on," Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said.

"To see Utah come in and just strengthen what we already had has been really exciting."

Vanessa Zamarripa and Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs posted 9.90 scores as UCLA finished with a 49.350 on the floor exercise to pass Utah for first place on the final rotation.

"We had two uncharacteristic falls on the floor, and Elyse had to follow both of those," Kondos Field said.

Oklahoma, the No. 3 seed, finished fourth in the first semifinal with 196.925, followed by Nebraska (196.625) and Louisiana State (196.550).