After being voted the pre-season No. 1, UCLA watched as Georgia assumed the role of favorites during the regular season. But when it counted the most, the Bruins proved they were worthy of their early ranking by winning the NCAA Championship.
UCLA entered the championships in Gainesville, Florida as the No. 2 seed after its performance at Regionals. Michigan earned the No. 1 seed, and the favorite, Georgia, faltered on beam at Regionals and received the No. 6 seed. Despite their mishaps, however, the Gym Dogs were still highly regarded as the favorite after accumulating two scores over 198 during the season.
The Bruins faced a tough field in Day One of the championships. With only three spots from each of the two sessions available in the Super Six team finals, UCLA had a tough challenge ahead. The Bruins opponents in the preliminaries were three-time NCAA Champions Georgia, nine-time NCAA Champions Utah, as well as LSU, Nebraska and Penn State.
Right from the get-go it was apparent the Bruins were going to have a strong day. On their first event of the competition, the Bruins' first vaulter, Lena Degteva, scored a career-high 9.9 on a vault she had only performed one other time in competition. The Bruin scores remained high, with a 9.8 from Leah Homma, 9.825 from Deborah Mink, 9.85 from Heidi Moneymaker and 9.9 from Amy Smith for a team total of 49.275.
Bars were equally solid, with an identical team total of 49.275, including a 9.9 from Stella Umeh and 9.925 from Homma. Beam proved to be no trouble for the Bruins in their next rotation, as UCLA totaled 48.925, paced by a 9.875 from Homma and a 9.825 from Kiralee Hayashi.
UCLA ended the preliminaries on floor exercise and turned in one strong routine after the other. Mink started the rotation with a 9.7, followed by Degteva and Hayashi with 9.775s, Homma with a 9.825 and Smith with a 9.875. With its place in the Super Six secure after hitting 23 of 23 routines on the day, the Bruins elected to not compete Umeh on floor in hopes of saving her for the team finals the next day.
It was a move that could have blown up in the Bruins' faces, had they been in the position Utah and Nebraska were in. The Utes and Cornhuskers ended up tied for third place behind Georgia (197.075) and UCLA (196.425) with identical scores of 196.025. The little-known tie-breaking procedure involved using the dropped score among the six routines on each apparatus to add to the team total. With Utah having one fall and Nebraska having none, the Cornhuskers advanced to the Super Six, and Utah failed to advance for the first time in history.
Utah wasn't the only one of the favorites upset in its quest to reach the Super Six. Also knocked out in the evening session was defending champion Alabama. Arizona State, which had placed sixth out of seven teams in the Pac-10 Championships, surprised the field by scoring the highest team total of the session (196.275). Michigan and host Florida wrapped up the other two spots in the Super Six.
With the Super Six teams set, the coaches gathered for the blind draw that would determine each team's rotation order. Michigan drew the favored Olympic-order rotation, starting on Bye-Vault. UCLA's draw was less than favorable, as the Bruins would have to start on Bye-Beam. Georgia also drew a tough rotation, beginning on beam.
Before UCLA even took to the beam for its first rotation of competition, the door had opened. As the Bruins were taking a first rotation bye, Georgia was stumbling on the beam. The Gym Dogs had a disastrous rotation, having to count two falls. Those falls, in effect, took Georgia out of the running. The pressure then shifted to the Bruins, as they would have to follow Georgia on the dreaded beam.
But the Bruins were undaunted by the pressure. Once again, UCLA's first competitor, Susie Erickson, came up to hit a career-best routine to start the ball rolling with a 9.85. Hayashi followed with a 9.8. A fall in the third position put a scare into the Bruins, but they rallied to hit their routines - Homma for a 9.8, Luisa Portocarrero for a 9.825 and Umeh with a spectacular 9.925 - and took themselves safely past the most nerve-racking event in the competition with a score of 49.2.
UCLA moved to the floor exercise and proceeded to have one of its best floor sets of the season. Each gymnast's score built up throughout the rotation. Mink started with a 9.675, followed by Degteva's 9.775, Hayashi's 9.8, Homma's 9.825 and Smith's 9.825. Head coach Valorie Kondos' decision to rest Umeh on floor in the preliminaries paid off when the junior had her chance to show why she won the NCAA floor exercise title in 1995. With a show-stopping routine that included a stunning double-layout, the only one performed on floor in the entire competition, Umeh wowed the crowd with a 9.9.
The Bruins entered vault in third place behind Michigan and Arizona State. Michigan's small bobbles began to add up, and the Wolverines could only total a 48.775 to raise their score to 147.625. ASU, in the meantime, finished up its competition on floor with a 49.15 to raise its final total to 196.6. UCLA improved its position with strong vaulting. Carmen Tausend led off the rotation with a career-high 9.85. Mink followed with a 9.85, Moneymaker landed a 9.825, and Degteva scored 9.875. Homma closed out the scoring with a 9.9 to move UCLA into a tie with Michigan going into the last rotation.
UCLA finished on bars, considered to be its best event during the season, while Michigan concluded on floor, the lowest-scoring event of the championships. In order to surpass ASU, both teams needed a 49.25. It was a score that was not insurmountable for the Bruins - they had scored a new school record 49.475 a month earlier in Corvallis. But in such a pressure-packed situation, anything was possible.
Anything - including a record-setting performance that entrenched UCLA in history as the first team outside of Georgia, Alabama and Utah to win the NCAA title. One Bruin gymnast after the other came up and performed routines that were more difficult and more flawless than the ones before. Mink started off with a 9.825, a score that was later dropped. Hayashi followed with a 9.85. Degteva nailed a 9.875. Umeh followed with a 9.925. Moneymaker needed just a 9.775 to clinch the championship for the Bruins and nailed a 9.925. Homma's 9.95 to close the competition punctuated the evening for the Bruins, which totaled a season-high 197.15, three-tenths better than Arizona State. Michigan could only muster a 48.875 on floor and finished in fourth place behind Georgia, which made an amazing rally to finish third.
While it was a complete team effort that brought UCLA its first-ever NCAA Gymnastics title, several Bruins stood out by earning All-American acclaim. Homma earned first-team honors on bars, beam and all-around, placing 13th, fifth and fourth, respectfully. She also earned second-team honors on floor to bring her career All-America total to a school-record eight. Smith earned first-team All-American honors on vault and floor. Degteva earned first-team honors on vault and second-team in the all-around. Umeh earned her third consecutive first-team honor on bars, and Hayashi became a first-time All-American with second-team honors on beam. In addition, Kondos earned her second consecutive National Coach of the Year honor.