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The crown remains: No. 1 Florida gymnastics edges No. 2 LSU in thrilling showdown

The Gators took LSU’s best shot and survived a fall, but came out on top — if only barely.

Florida Gators

In some corners, last Friday’s meeting of No. 1 Florida and No. 2 LSU on the floor in the Paul Maravich Activities Center was billed as the “meet of the century” in women’s college gymnastics. And there’s no doubt that it was the marquee meet of this weird year.

But it’s rare that such a meet lives up to its billing — and yet, between high scoring, a perfect 10, two 198+ team score, and a nail-biting finish, the much-hyped affair almost certainly produced the most exciting meet in the NCAA season this year.

Oh, and a win for No. 1 Florida. The Gators got that out of it, too.

But we’ll get to that.

As I have prefaced before, some of the scoring in this meet was very ... loose. Among the things to know about judging in college gymnastics is that when the scores are generally high, it becomes hard to differentiate between good routines and great routines, and the scores get bunched up at the top.

That definitely happened on Friday night in Baton Rouge: Both teams were on fire, and tons of 9.9+ scores were being thrown, but not all of them seemed totally justified — and some of the assessments in the 9.8 range were arguably low. I’m not going to do an autopsy of all the scores here — though I’m happy to answer questions about specifics in the comments — but I do think the better team on the night won.

I also think that, after a week off, the Gators looked stronger than ever.

Payton Richards got things started on bars with a 9.85 for a clean routine with a stuck dismount. Freshman Gabbie Gallentine followed her with some struggles on a handstand and loose knees on her dismount, which forced her to settle for a 9.775 that Florida would already be looking to drop. Megan Skaggs got things back on track with a 9.875 for a good routine with a small hop on her dismount.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were already putting up some big scores on vault with Chase Brock’s 9.825, Alyona Shchennikova’s 9.925, and Elena Arenas’ 9.85 leading off.

The duel was on, and it wouldn’t end until the night’s 48th routine.

Savannah Schoenherr got things done on the bars and scored a 9.925 for her routine compete with a stuck dismount; she had one pretty late handstand that was no doubt deducted for. In the fifth spot, Trinity Thomas was near perfection to score a 9.975.

Freshman Ellie Lazzari returned to the bars lineup for the first time since the opening meet, she struggled a bit with her rhythm and had to settle for a 9.75. Lazzari’s form is so good that when she hits this routine it will no doubt be a big score, but her inability to be totally clean on this night left Florida counting a bars score in the 9.7s.

And with the Tigers finishing their vault lineup with three massive scores — Sarah Edwards’s 9.925, Kiya Johnson’s 9.95, and Haleigh Bryant’s 9.95 — to push the Tigers ahead of the Gators 49.6 to 49.4 after the first rotation, the pressure was definitely on.

Lazzari had a quick turn around and started off on vault with her Yurchenko full for 9.775. Skaggs then completely stuck her full to score a 9.875 — maybe the night’s worst score. While this score could be justified in a vacuum, it seemed very low in comparison to some of the other scores in the meet.

Fortunately, Florida had more sticks to come. Schoenherr and Nya Reed controlled their Yurchenko 1.5s for 9.9 and 9.925, respectively. In the fifth spot, Thomas completely stuck her 1.5Y to score her second consecutive 9.975 on the meet — and inspiring more than a few quips on Twitter that she should really have had two 10s to her name on the night.

Richards was moved to the anchor spot this week, so I (and others, including the SEC Network commentary team) thought that we were going to see her 1.5 — she has been doing the full this season, even though she did the 1.5 all last season. Yet she did just the full — I assume because Lazzari went under 9.8, and Florida needed a safe score more than the risk/reward proposition of competing a skill for the first time this year — and scored a 9.875.

Meanwhile, the Tigers had a high scoring bars rotation (49.550), to keep them a familiar two-tenths of a point ahead of the Gators, 99.150 to 98.950. (I’ll leave you all to judge if the last two routines in that rotation, each given a 9.95, were nearly as strong as Thomas’s was.)

The Gators’ floor rotation start was uncharacteristically bumpy, with Skaggs’s music not being able to play properly for several minutes and her having to move in and out of her starting pose. Schoenherr had something to say about this odd turn of events.

(So did I. — Andy)

Fortunately, Skaggs was not rattled and did her usual to score a 9.85. Richards followed her with a 9.875 for another clean routine. I am always so impressed at how easy she makes her gymnastics look. Lazzari put up a 9.825 in the third spot for her third routine of the day. We saw her training some of her more difficult tumbling this week, so I hope she is able to upgrade this routine soon.

Over on beam, the scores were soaring for Tigers, with their first two routines putting up a 9.9 and 9.925. The Gators needed to start scoring over 9.9 to close in the gap, and Reed was just the one to get things going. She performed her usual excellent double layout, but was a little bouncy on her combination pass, and so “settled” for a 9.925 for her effort, still much-needed for the Gators.

But she was about to be upstaged. Going fifth, Thomas added another dazzling routine to her nearly perfect night. She had excellent control on all of her passes, most importantly the double pike that she has struggled with landing in past weeks, and gave next to nothing to deduct for. As such, she was finally awarded her first perfect 10.0 of the season — and the fifth of her career.

Thomas was also featured as No. 3 on the Friday version of the SportsCenter Top 10.

Following that, Alyssa Baumann — who had been out of floor the last two weeks — returned to the floor lineup in the anchor spot and had a strong routine to score a 9.9.

Yet even a rotation with a 10.0 couldn’t make up any ground on LSU. Over on beam, the Tigers put up two more 9.925s to keep the pressure on the Gators, and maintained their 0.2-point lead, 148.700 to 148.500, into the fourth and final rotation.

At that point, I was getting a bit worried. The Gators would need to be nearly perfect on beam and the Tigers would need to struggle on floor to make up the difference of 0.2 — and both teams were heading to an apparatus where they entered rated best in the country.

Richards led off on beam with her usual — cool, calm, collected, and no wobbles. She was awarded a 9.925, an impressive score for a leadoff performer. Over on floor, LSU’s Bridget Dean put up a 9.875 for her routine to keep things tight.

But in the second position for the Gators, Skaggs came off on her series to put even more pressure on the rest of the lineup to hit so they could drop a 9.3 that, if counted, surely spelled doom for the Gators. LSU’s Christina Desiderio scored a 9.750 to open the door a little, but the Tigers would obviously be hoping to drop this score, and in fine position to generate four better.

In the third spot for the Gators, the pressure was on freshman Lazzari to put up a great routine. Lazzari showed no nerves, perfectly hitting her triple series and leaps, then sticking her dismount. She matched her career high with a 9.95.

For the Tigers, Shchennikova performed her own great routine to add a 9.925 to the Tigers total and keep Florida from gaining much ground.

Baumann kept the Gators in the fight with another good routine — she really fought for this one, and if you watch, you can see where she might have been a little off but holds on strong. She added another 9.925 to the Gators total. But LSU’s Sierra Ballard matched her with another 9.925.

By this late stage, the Gators needed LSU to make a mistake to be able to win.

In their respective fifth spots, Thomas finished her all-around night with a 9.95 for another nearly perfect routine, while LSU’s Edwards put up a 9.875 — leaving only the very last routines to decide the meet.

In her only event of the night, Leah Clapper was the final performer for the Gators. Clapper had a little lean on her series but hit everything else well and stuck her dismount to score a 9.90. Even with Skaggs coming off, the Gators did their job on beam, posting a 49.650 that was the best score on any rotation all night.

But LSU’s freshman star Bryant needed only a 9.875 to seal the win for the Tigers.

She wouldn’t get it.

In a shocking turn of events, Bryant fell on her front handspring front double full, an error that would lead to her scoring a 9.425 and LSU having to count Desiderio’s 9.75 for a rotation score of “just” 49.350 — a strong score for most rotations on most nights, but one that cost the Tigers three tenths of a point on this one.

And so the Gators won the meet, 198.15 to 198.05, claiming their first win by a No. 1 team in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting since a 2014 clash with Oklahoma and the first win by a visiting team in such a titanic tussle since 2008.

And Florida has the incredible performance of Trinity Thomas to thank.

We have long known how great she is, but this night was something special even for her. Thomas scored a 39.900 in the all-around, which is tied for the fifth highest NCAA all-around score ever, and also the new Florida record for all-around, topping the previous 39.825 record put up on legendary nights by Alex McMurtry, Bridget Sloan, Alaina Johnson, and Thomas herself.

And there were still credible calls for Thomas — whose 9.975s each included at least one 10.0 from a judge, remember — to have been scored higher on the night.

On the way to this incredible performance, Thomas picked up shares of all four of the event titles. Lazzari shared the title on beam. Richards was second in the all-around with her career-high of 39.525 and Lazzari’s first all-around performance of 39.300 was good for third. (Had Skaggs managed even a 9.525 on beam, she would have matched LSU’s lone all-arounder — Bryant — in that tally. Florida getting 16 of its routines from just four athletes and still prevailing was an undersung thread of the evening.)

It should also come as no shock that after the rest of the weekend in collegiate gymnastics, the Gators remain on top of the field and LSU remains at No. 2. Thomas’s all-around performance propelled Thomas back up the standings to No. 3 — and she is still counting a fall. She is also No. 1 on bars and tied for No. 1 on vault.

For an encore, the Gators are back at home next week for their “Link to Pink” meet against No. 15 Kentucky. Here’s how to tune in.

When: Friday, February 19 2021 at 6:45 p.m.

Where: O’Connell Center

TV: SEC Network+ (Gator Great Bridget Sloan and Courtney Lyle on the call)

Live Stats: StatBroadcast