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Tens to hook: Florida gymnastics makes stunning comeback in national spotlight

Three perfect scores helped rescue the Gators against Alabama.

Syndication: Gainesville Sun Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK

For the first-ever regular-season NCAA gymnastics meet to be broadcast on network television, ABC got a soap opera, drama, and action movie all rolled into one. Florida’s Sunday meet against Alabama needed no scripting — it simply had it all, including perfect 10s, emotional reactions, high-flying skills, dramatic falls, and an epic comeback.

The network really couldn’t have asked for anything more.

And neither could the Gators, who pulled out a thrilling win at the 11th hour.

First and foremost, Sunday’s meet also served as Florida’s Equality Night, and seniors Savannah Schoenherr and Nya Reed were announced with their Pride and Black Lives Matter flags, respectively. Many of the athletes were wearing rainbow Pride ribbons as a part of Skaggs’ Tiny Bow Project and several donned rainbow masks. The Equality Night theme was even mentioned on the ABC broadcast.

And when the gymnastics started, the big night feel remained.

In the first rotation, Florida started on the vault while Alabama started on the bars. Megan Skaggs led things off for Florida with a nearly stuck full for a 9.875. Bri Edwards followed her with a clean full in the air but a big hop back for a 9.775. Meanwhile, Alabama athletes were keeping things tight over on bars, with Emily Gaskins scoring a 9.750 and Mati Waligora scoring a 9.800.

In the third spot, Schoenherr was back in the vault lineup. While she has often been one of the Gators’ top-scoring vaulters during her career, she has also had to work through numerous injuries, and I was surprised to see her in the lineup this early in the season. She under-rotated her Yurchenko 1.5 and had to fight just to land on her feet, earning just a 9.625. This was definitely the score the Gators would want to drop if they wanted to keep pace with Alabama. And the Tide was starting strong, with Shania Adams scoring a 9.850 for her excellent precise handstands within moments of Schoenherr’s disappointing go.

Reed was just the athlete to get things back on track for the Gators. She flew high and far on her Yurchenko 1.5 and all but stuck the landing again this week, with just a small movement on one foot. She was awarded a career-high 9.975 for her nearly perfect vault.

Freshman Leanne Wong joined the vault lineup for the first time in the fifth spot and performed her Podkopayeva vault (round-off half on, pike half off) which is another 10.0 start value vault. She was a little short this week and had to settle for a 9.750, but she has shown her ability to stick this vault in intrasquad videos, and could well continue to use it.

Over on bars, Alabama was keeping things very close, with Cam Machado (9.850) and Luisa Blanco (9.925) scoring well.

Then came the big moment of the meet’s early goings: Trinity Thomas stuck her Yurchenko 1.5 and was finally awarded her long-awaited 10.0 on vault. This first 10.0 on vault for Thomas, a perennial elite performer on the apparatus, completed her so-called Gym Slam — a 10.0 on each event as a collegiate gymnast — and makes her the first Gator to complete this feat since Gator great Alex McMurtry.

Amidst the celebration, though, Makarri Doggette was showing excellent work on the bars to add another 9.925 to Alabama’s total. And after one rotation, the teams were tied at 49.350.

Theoretically, this would still have favored Florida, which is presumed to be a stronger team on bars than vault at present, and could count a 49.350 as a very good vault score. And when the teams switched events, the Gators tried to keep their momentum going: Sloane Blakely led off with a 9.775 for a hit routine and Skaggs followed her with a 9.875 for a very clean routine.

Adams and freshman Lilly Hudson hit their Yurchenko fulls for Alabama to score a 9.700 and 9.750, respectively.

Then things got a little odd. For the Gators, Riley McCusker showed off her excellent lines on the bars and nearly got the stick on her front tuck half dismount — onee that she struggled with last week — but was awarded only a 9.750 for her efforts.

In the third spot for Alabama, Shallon Olsen showed the O’Dome and national television her huge Yurchenko double twist — the vault McMurtry used to do. And she scored a 9.850.

Schoenherr showed crisp work on her bars routine and stuck her own double front half to be awarded a 9.825. Unfortunately, both Thomas and Wong had arched handstands and scored a pair of 9.750s to keep the Gators’ bars event total to a meager 49.000.

On vault, Alabama was making quick work of clean vaults with Kaylee Quinn (9.8250), Doggette (9.875), and Lexi Graber (9.825) all scoring over 9.8.

After two rotations, the Gators were trailing the Crimson Tide, 98.475 to 98.325.

At this point, I think most watching expected the Gators to be lights out on the balance beam and go into the last rotation ahead.

Skaggs (9.875) and Blakely (9.925) tried to make this happen. They started the lineup with two crisp, clean, and dynamic routines, each showing control and amplitude on their stuck side aerial to full dismounts.

On floor, Olsen (9.725) was once again showing high-flying big gymnastics when she opened with a piked full-in.

In the third spot for the Gators, Ellie Lazzari was back in the lineup after being out last week. As the reigning SEC co-champion on the event, she was expected to keep the momentum and high scores going for Florida. Unfortunately, she had a dramatic fall, coming off the side on her triple series and sliding down the beam to the ground. A gasp was heard in the O’Dome — and on my couch.

Lazzari got back up and finished the routine, but her 9.150 was definitely not a score the Gators wanted to count in their attempt to come from behind to beat Alabama.

Alyssa Baumann had the hard task of competing on the beam after Lazzari’s mistake. As a seasoned competitor, Baumann is exactly the kind of athlete that you want in this position. However, she, too, had an unusually nervy routine, with a small balance check on her side aerial and a bigger balance check on her switch side. She scored a 9.625 — and with that score set to count, it was not looking good for the Gators’ total.

Wong now had the tough job of righting the ship after one teammate’s fall and another’s missteps. With a complicated routine with multiple acro skills (back handspring step out layout step out series, front aerial, side aerial, and side somersault) and a “college stick” on her double twist dismount, she more than did her job, earning her first 9.90 as a Gator.

Leah Clapper, Florida’s smart and solid anchor, closed things out. She hit her series but missed her connection to her split jump after her switch leap. She had to repeat her series for credit — which she did perfectly — and almost stuck her dismount. She scored a 9.775, helping the Gators avert the disaster of counting a full fall on beam.

Still, this was decidedly not the rotation that Florida needed — and Alabama was taking advantage of that. Over on floor, the final five competitors for the Crimson Tide all scored over 9.80 — Sania Mitchell (9.825), Waligora (9.800), Hudson (9.850), Blanco (9.900), and Graber (9.925) executing well — to extend their lead over the Gators to 147.775 to 147.425 going into the last rotation.

The Gators needed magic on floor to come behind and beat Alabama.

Skaggs led things off with her beautiful routine, showing perfect control on all of her tumbling and leaps to score a 9.900 and set the Gators up for greatness in this rotation. But Blakely (9.725) and Baumann (9.750) would not build on that, leaving things dire midway through the final rotation.

But the door was not completely shut. Alabama was keeping things on track, but not putting up any big scores through its first three athletes on beam — Ella Burgess (9.775), Doggette (9.750), and Olsen (9.800) were all fine but not fantastic.

Then Hudson pulled the door closer to the jamb, delivering on beam for the Crimson Tide and putting up a 9.875 for a very clean routine that featured no error bigger than a hop on the landing.

At this point, the Gators needed a miracle to win the meet.

Wong, once again, did her part. The freshman kept her gorgeous triple twist opening pass in bounds and showed clean form and landings on her combination pass and double pike to score another big number, a 9.925, on floor.

Waligora then broke some of the Alabama momentum on beam with a 9.700.

And it would all come down to Florida’s final two floor performers.

The heat was first on Reed, going fifth in the rotation, who tweeted on Saturday that she really wanted to be in the 10.0 club. She performed like it on Sunday.

Her double layout was stuck with no questions. Her combination pass showed precise and definitive control. Her leaps soared high into the air and her double pike was cleanly controlled. It was, without question, one of her best routines ever. She waited with Coach Jenny Rowland before her score was flashed.

It was a 10. She collapsed to the floor in emotion and the O’Dome roared.

Blanco had the tough job of finishing out Alabama’s meet while the crowd was exploding. Yet she did what she does best, putting on a technically perfect and beautiful beam show. She notched the highest beam score of the meet, a 9.95, and put the pressure back on Florida, which had made up more than a tenth of a point thanks to Reed.

With one routine to go, Thomas needed a 9.95 or better to win the meet for Florida in a huge come from behind victory.

But she’s Trinity Thomas. So she got the “or better,” picking up her second 10.0 of the meet and the Gators’ second on floor, to stage a heist of a victory.

The back-to-back 10.0s from Reed and Thomas sealed the deal for the Gators, as they won the meet 197.000 to 196.925. To put the clutchness of their performances in perspective: Had they only managed sterling 9.95s, Florida would have lost.

Skaggs took home her second all-around title with a 39.525. Thomas won the vault with her 10.0 and Reed and Thomas shared the floor title with their pair of 10.0s. Alabama’s Blanco and Doggette shared the bars title (9.925), and Blanco won the beam title (9.95).

It was, without question, one of the most dramatic and exciting meets that the network could have hoped for, even if there were some questionable scores and uncharacteristic stumbles. And I bet it made the argument for even more NCAA gymnastics on ABC in the future quite well.

For their efforts in this meet, Thomas was named the SEC Specialist of the Week, and Wong shared SEC Freshman of the Week with Auburn’s Sophia Groth.

Next week, the Gators head to their first away meet at Georgia for the fourth annual — and final — “Battle of the Baumanns,” as Alyssa once again competes against her sister Rachel. The meet will be the first leg of an SEC Network triple-header, and will start at 6 p.m. Eastern.