Priess Delivers; Tide NCAA Champion

DULUTH, Ga. -- A year ago, Alabama gymnast Ashley Priess was on the sidelines for the NCAA Championships after having had surgery on both ankles. This year the senior delivered in the final event to help the Crimson Tide win its sixth national gymnastics championship and second in a row.

The meet came down to the final competitor for both the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators. Priess clinched the win with a 9.95 on the balance beam, pushing the Tide past Florida 197.85-197.775.

Just as it did a year ago in Cleveland, Ohio, the meet came down to last rotation and the last gymnasts of the two teams on the floor exercise and balance beam. Last year Alabama closed out UCLA on the floor exercise, winning with an overall score of 197.650. This year Alabama was on the balance beam with No. 1 seed Florida on the floor exercise.

Florida finished before Priess performed. The Gators were just .025 ahead of UCLA's 197.750, and waiting to see what Priess would score to know if Florida would take home its first title.

A 9.875 by Priess would tie the Gators, anything better by the Wheaton, Ill., native would win.

Priess left no doubt, tying her career-best of 9.95.

Priess and fellow senior Geralen Stack-Eaton led the Tide with all-around scores of 39.575 and 39.700 respectively. It was a career-high for Stack-Eaton and just off Priess' best mark.

In addition to the 2012 and 2011 national championships, Alabama has won NCAA Gymnastics titles in 2002, 1996, 1991 and 1988, all under Coach Sarah Patterson.

"I couldn't be more proud of our athletes," Patterson said. "We really had a great night. We had an extreme team performance."

"Championships always come down to the last routine and no matter if it was a close meet or not a close meet, I knew I had to do my job," Priess said. "The only thing that was going through my mind was to be calm, cool and collected and just do my job."

For Patterson, the fact that the championship came down to Priess, after all she had been through the year before, was extremely fitting.

"The story will be that Ashley came back this year and used the hurt and frustration from a year ago to fuel herself and this team," Patterson said. "She was on fire the entire season."

The Tide finished just .075 ahead of the Gators and a tenth of a point ahead of UCLA. It was the third closest finished between first and second place in collegiate gymnastics history and the closest between first and third ever.

"That was an incredible performance by all the teams," Patterson said. "I said going into this championship that this would be the closest and most contested championship that I had ever coached in. I felt like because of the quality of teams, it was going to come down to the very end and that's just happened."

It was the Tide's highest score since posting a 197.925 against Florida in 2004. It was also Alabama's second highest score in the NCAA Super Six Team Finals, behind the 198.025 the Tide used to win the 1996 NCAA Championship.

Alabama posted the highest score of the night on the floor exercise, vault and balance beam.

The Tide started things off with a 49.45 on the floor exercise, led by 9.9s from sophomore Diandra Milliner and junior Marissa Gutierrez and a 9.95 from Stack-Eaton. Alabama then moved immediately to the vault, scoring a season-high 49.625 led by Stack-Eaton's 9.975, a 9.95 from Milliner and 9.9s from freshman Kayla Williams, Priess and Gutierrez.

Leading the meet by .175 at the halfway point, Alabama's 49.275 on the uneven bars allowed Florida to take a .025 lead over the Tide into the sixth and final rotation.

"I think we were a little upset with our performance on bars," Stack-Eaton said. "It was still over a 49, but we knew going into beam that we are a great beam team. We just wanted to go up there and do each routine and hit it like we knew how. We had the utmost faith in ourselves and one another."

Alabama was hoping for a score similar to the one it put up on the balance beam during the NCAA semifinals the night before, when it posted a 49.6, the third highest beam total in school history.

Sophomore Kim Jacob got the Tide off to another great start, scoring her second 9.9 on the beam in as many days. Williams also scored her second 9.9 of the weekend on beam in the third position. Stack-Eaton also scored a 9.9 in the fifth spot to bring it all down to Priess, whose 9.95 tied her career-best mark.

"Earlier today before the competition, we all had an assignment from the coaches to write down why we love being an Alabama gymnast and pretty much every single person answered that it was about the tradition, and how we are all family and that we all have each other's backs through good times and bad," Priess said. "I think that came out tonight - the way that we love each other and truly care about each other - and I think it brings out the best in us all."

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