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UCLA Bruins advance to NCAA women's gymnastics finals

Team ties for second place in Friday evening semifinals and will compete Saturday along with Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, LSU and Georgia.

April 20, 2013|By Diane Pucin
  • Alabama's Sarah DeMeo performs her routine on the balance beam during the team competition at the NCAA women's gymnastics championships on Friday.
Alabama's Sarah DeMeo performs her routine on the balance beam during… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

When UCLA's Vanessa Zamarripa flew around the uneven bars at Pauley Pavilion, soared almost to the ceiling, it seemed, and landed with a bit of a wobble but without a fall, it became certain.

The Bruins had qualified for Saturday's six-team women's gymnastics NCAA finals.

UCLA tied with Oklahoma in second place in Friday's evening semifinals and joined session winner Alabama, along with Friday's afternoon best threesome of Florida, LSU and Georgia as earning spots in Saturday's team final.

Bruins Coach Valorie Kondos Field channeled another famous UCLA coach at the end of the meet.

"Goodness gracious sakes alive," Kondos Field said, and suddenly it seemed as if John Wooden was whispering in her ear.

"This really lived up to what it was supposed to be. We couldn't hold anything back. We had to leave it all on the floor tonight," Kondos Field said.

Alabama won the evening semifinals with a score of 197.350 while Oklahoma and UCLA tied for second with 197.200. Michigan (196.850), Utah and Arkansas were eliminated.

On Friday afternoon, Florida finished first with a total of 197.775, just ahead of LSU and Georgia. Minnesota, Illinois and Stanford were eliminated.

Danusia Francis, who was a familiar figure at the Olympics when she performed a demonstration beam routine every day as instructions to the crowd, led UCLA on that nerve-racking apparatus, the first event for the Bruins.

Twisting her body into shapes unknown even by pretzels, Francis scored a team-high 9.90.

The star for UCLA on its next rotation, floor exercise, was a flying, swiveling, swerving, curving Olivia Courtney, who saluted the crowd after scoring a nearly perfect 9.950.

Up next for the Bruins was the vault, and there wasn't even a hint of nerves. Or missed landings. Led by a nearly perfect 9.95 from Kaelie Baer, they finished with a score of 49.50, tying the season's best.

UCLA's final rotation was on the uneven bars. Oklahoma had already finished with its score of 197.20, but the Bruins twirled as if they didn't have a care in the world.

"I wasn't nervous at all," Zamarripa said. "I was at ease with my bar routine. I was just glad to be able to help my teammates."

The Bruins, who have won six NCAA titles — most recently in 2010 — had brought much of the crowd to its feet on the third rotation, the vault. Three Bruins — Alyssa Pritchett (9.85), Lichelle Wong (9.90) and Kaelie Baer (9.95) — set career-high marks with their scores.

Bridget Sloan, a 2008 Olympian who withdrew from the 2012 Olympic trials because of an elbow injury, helped Florida to the top qualifying score in the afternoon semifinals.

The Gators finished with 197.775 points, and it was a Southeastern Conference sweep of the top three places with LSU and Georgia joining Florida as the first members of Saturday's "Super Six."

Sloan, a freshman, had the highest all-around high point total of the day or night session with a 39.600. She had tearfully left the Olympic trials last summer, but on Friday there was nothing but smiles from Sloan.

"The last few months have been incredible," Sloan said. "It's not the way I wanted my elite career to end, but in a way [the injury] was a blessing in disguise. I got to go home, heal, train, enjoy life, pack up all my stuff and go to school.

"I had no idea what to expect, but I love gymnastics again, I love competing. It's becoming a fun job for me, being a student and an athlete."

Florida Coach Rhonda Faehn called Sloan "one of the easiest athletes to coach and the funniest."

"Elite athletes are almost not allowed to smile but because Bridget is having a blast, I think that's why she's had such tremendous results so quickly as a freshman," Faehn said. "She has a really fun, light attitude. It's great for a team to have."

Sloan gets to lead her top-seeded team again Saturday.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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