After the third rotation in Gainesville on Friday night, Georgia led Florida in a matchup of two of the nation's top six gymnastics squads. It wasn't a big lead: Just .075 of a point, well within comeback range. But Florida looked like it would need a very good performance on the floor to come back against the Gym Dogs.
Georgia had been nearly flawless — matching the Beyoncé track played for a Georgia gymnast's exhibition routine just minutes prior — all night, posting scores of 49.300 or better on its first three rotations.
Then the first two Georgia gymnasts fell on the balance beam during their final rotation, all but assuring the Gators of a win with merely a decent performance on the floor.
Florida's floor performers — and specifically Bridget Sloan and Kytra Hunter — had a slightly different Queen Bey track to play.
Sloan and Hunter recorded back-to-back 10.0s, becoming the second set of Florida teammates to record 10.0s on the same night, and the first since 1996. Their routines highlighted a stunning set of floor exercises that featured no score lower than an impressive leadoff 9.875 by Claire Boyce; Florida would record five scores of 9.95 or better, and post a massive 49.850 on the apparatus, the best single-rotation score in program history. It topped the Gators' 49.725 in the floor exercise during the 2013 Super Six — a then-unfathomable tally that propelled Florida to its first national title.
This score put a country mile between the Gators and Gym Dogs. Florida finished at 198.050 on the night, with Georgia at 196.700; even if Georgia hadn't had to count a fall on the balance beam, the Gators would have won by half a point, and likely more.
And they deserved those scores on the floor, too. Watch Sloan's routine, which matches her "Seven Nation Army" accompaniment perfectly, and you'll find it just about impossible to detect a flaw:
Watch Hunter's, and you'll find it just as difficult to see anything but enomous amplitude and great execution.
And Rachel Spicer — whose bobbles on the balance beam forced Florida to click off five great routines, preventing her leadoff 9.500 from being counted — scored a career-best 9.975 that could have arguably been a 10. And Mackenzie and Bridgette Caquatto posted career-best 9.95s. And Boyce's 9.875 was the best score of her young career, now just three meets old.
If you read gymnastics message boards (they exist!) there have been whispers for a while that Florida is judged rather kindly at home. But the roars of the crowd last night weren't for inflated floor scores — they were for the right ones, and for a team that improved on two just-good-enough-to-win performances on the road to begin its first national championship defense by re-establishing itself as the favorite to repeat.
Florida's 198.050 is the best score in the nation this year, and the fifth-best score in school history. Four of the five best scores in school history, though, have happened in the last 12 months — and most of the gymnasts responsible for those scores are still around.
Sloan and Hunter are the perfect complements to each other, as Scott Carter's excellent feature from last night points out: Sloan brims with joy while Hunter's veins pump steely resolve; Hunter possesses breathtaking power, while Sloan's execution is the stuff of textbooks. Each Gator won the NCAA all-around title as a freshman, and their best competition for the title for the rest of their collegiate careers will be each other. They push each other, and in the right way: Carter quotes Sloan as saying "If I can get a 10, Kytra can get an 11" to head coach Rhonda Faehn.
When Sloan and Hunter are on — as they were last night, tying for the all-around title with 39.700s that matched the 39.700 Sloan recorded last week against Auburn for the best all-around score in the nation this year — Florida is going to be exceedingly difficult for other teams to best. And when Sloan and Hunter aren't the only Gators who are on — as was also the case last night, with Mackenzie Caquatto posting a 39.600 all-around score, Spicer putting up her massive number on the floor, and Bridgette Caquatto contributing two 9.95s — beating these Gators will be impossible.
The raucous home crowds that Florida can probably expect all year, especially after more than 10,000 fans took in last night's home opener, will also make life hell for visiting teams. Georgia's two falls on the balance beam came before the crowd repeatedly erupted for 10s — first the one that Spicer got as part of her score, then the perfect 10s Sloan and Hunter received — and it felt like it took superhuman concentration for Georgia to finish the rest of its final rotation without a fall. ("It felt like an earthquake when we were on the floor," said Faehn, and she isn't wrong.)
Florida's going to see great teams in 2014, including 2013 NCAA runner-up Oklahoma next week, but it's working with some substantial home-mat advantage, whether or not the judges are being kind. And it's got wins over three very good squads already, having pipped UCLA in Westwood, beaten Auburn at Auburn, and come back against a Georgia team that started Friday night on fire, and would have had an excellent team score had it not counted a fall.
And here's the really scary part: Florida's probably going to get better. Sloan and Hunter have room to improve — both have topped 39.700 in their careers, and without the benefit of 10s. The Caquattos are improving, and Mackenzie was already good enough to be many teams' best performer. 2013 NCAA uneven bars champion Alaina Johnson, who has career bests of 9.925 or better on each apparatus, has yet to hit her stride. And there's depth beyond that solid top five, somehow: Boyce is enough of a stud to be competing already, Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto impressed on the bars and beam last night, and Silvia Colussi-Pelaez did good work in exhibition performances.
When the scores from the weekend are all in, Florida will likely be the No. 1 team in the country again. The Gators improved their season average — the metric used to rank teams in women's college gymnastics — to 197.258 on Friday night, and Oklahoma and LSU would need big scores to top that.
But the rankings really don't matter that much, and shouldn't matter to a team that is very similar to last year's championship squad. This Florida team knows it can win another national title, and knows it can be better that it was even on this magical Friday night. Faehn will get them to keep striving for better than their already awesome best.
And with these Gators, there's nothing to be worried about. We just get to sit back, watch them take our breath away, and bow down.