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Better later: Florida gymnastics pulls away for Senior Night victory over Oklahoma

A late push — and another 10 for Trinity Thomas — helped the Gators take a win over the Sooners.

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

It wasn’t smooth from the start, but when it was over, Florida cruised to a victory over the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners on Friday at Senior Night in the O’Dome. The No. 3 Florida scored a 198.100 and rallied late on beam and floor to come out ahead after a good performance that left some points unearned.

But why wouldn’t later be when Florida topped the Sooners?

The first half of the meet was mostly without drama. The Gators put together a good performance on vault (49.400) and followed it with a great performance on bars (49.600). Sloane Blakely and Trinity Thomas were the highlights of the vault lineups for the Gators, with a pair of 9.925s for clean 1.5s. The rest of the lineup scored 9.85s and 9.825s to keep the Gators on track, but not one vault was stuck this week, costing fractions of points here and there.

Bars was a different story for the Gators. The first five athletes stuck their dismounts. Blakely set a great tone for the lineup with a career-high 9.90 for a very clean routine. Easily her best of the year. After her, super senior Megan Skaggs matched her career-high 9.95 with a nearly perfect routine.

Freshman Riley McCusker debuted her third dismount of the season with a stuck Stalder to double tuck for a 9.875. Sav Schoenherr (9.925) and Thomas (9.95) kept the sticks going and helped the team to their 49.600 finish; that took any and all pressure off of Leanne Wong, who finished up the lineup with a few mistakes for a 9.725 that Florida could discard.

The Sooners started their competition off with a clean bars rotation with all their athletes scoring 9.825+, but only Audrey Davis (9.925), Jordan Bowers (9.90), and Karrie Thomas (9.90) broke the 9.90 barrier. This was a little surprising for the Sooners, who have a very strong bars team.

Still, vault was the rotation where the Sooners could have really capitalized on the Gators inability to stick the landings — usually, the Sooners have an ability to hit sticks on vault that is unmatched by a lot of other programs.

Unfortunately for them on Friday, Oklahoma couldn’t collect the big scores that they would have liked. In a less dynamic vault rotation than usual, the Sooners scored a 49.375 that was highlighted by Danielle Sievers and Bowers’ 9.925s.

After two rotations, the Gators had a decent lead on the Sooners, 99.000 to 98.775.

The Gators expected to pick up the steam on beam, but remained mostly in the 9.8s with some uncharacteristic mistakes.

Skaggs started off and almost split the beam on her switch leap. In a “veteran move” — Jenny Rowland’s words — she made the quick decision to add a sissonne after her front aerial to make sure that she started from a 10.0 value. She scored a 9.875 after her start value was adjusted because one of the judges had made an error. Blakely had a decent size balance check on her switch half and had to settle for a 9.85. Baumann also had a lack of control on her dismount and also settled for a 9.85.

The Gators were opening the door for the Sooners. But they got it back to the jamb quickly: Wong set the team back on track with a 9.90 for her clean routine and Thomas followed her with a nearly perfect routine for a 9.975.

Clapper was in the position to make sure that the Gators would still break 49.500 for beam, but unfortunately she had a big break at the waist error on her series and scored a 9.80. The Gators scored a 49.450.

Although her routine didn’t count for a score, McCusker did compete a beautiful beam routine in the exhibition spot. She showed clean lines and control and scored a 9.875 for her first outing. It is great to see her healthy — and, beyond that, showing that she is a lineup option if needed. I wouldn’t be shocked to see her break into the Gators’ beam rotation by postseason.

Oklahoma continued their underwhelming night on floor with a 49.425 performance that was unable to advance on the Gators. Bowers was once again a top OU scorer with a 9.925. Ragan Smith also scored a 9.925.

Heading into final rotation, the Gators had a clear lead — 148.450 to the Sooners 148,200 - and just needed to hold serve to finish off a victory. They accelerated instead.

Payton Richards got the call again to lead off the lineup and showed great improvement since her last performance. She controlled her double layout well and had nice form on her combination pass, and scored a 9.85 for her efforts.

And that was a good progress point to see. The Gators have been able to count on Richards in the past for a solid 9.8+ score when they need her, and she is starting to show she can do that on floor again.

Skaggs and Baumann then performed their last routines in the O’Dome, producing back-to-back beautiful routines greeted by a pair of 9.90s, big hugs from the teammates and coaches, and roaring cheers from the O’Dome stands. These two have given so much to Florida over the past five years and will be very missed.

Senior Nya Reed then performed what could be her last routine in the O’Dome — we don’t know if she is going to take the fifth year that she is allowed to due to COVID. She was electric, and showed some of the control that I have seen on her second pass. The O’Dome erupted on her final chomp pose and she scored a 9.95.

Thomas, who may also have been performing her last routine in the O’Dome, followed up with perfection. She hit every single tumbling pass and leap with perfect execution and was awarded her 13th career perfect 10.0 as a result.

She also finished the night with a 39.850 in the all-around, the highest total by any athlete in the NCAA so far this season.

Blakely finished up the Gators lineup with another great routine for a 9.90. This capped off a great night in the all-around for her.

To its credit, Oklahoma did its best to put pressure on the Gators on beam. The Sooners showed off stunning beam routines, including 9.925s from Katherine LeVasseur, Olivia Trautman and Carly Woodard. But their impressive 49.550 not only wasn’t enough to beat the Gators, but actually lost them some ground thanks to Florida’s 49.650 on floor.

The Gators came out on top 198.100 to 197.750, continuing their undefeated season by adding yet another win over a top squad. Of the 10 teams other than Florida in the top 11 of this week’s national rankings, the Gators have defeated five.

After the meet, all eight fourth- and fifth-year seniors were honored at an emotional ceremony. Videos were shown that detailed the academic and athletic accomplishments of all of the athletes. This group of eight athletes — Skaggs, Baumann, Reed, Thomas, Clapper, Schoenherr, Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, and Halley Taylor — consists of some of the best gymnasts that Florida has ever had, and is almost inarguably the best senior class in Florida history, though its size helps a lot with that.

In this week’s rankings — see Week 8 here — the Gators are still ranked No. 3 and Oklahoma remains No. 2. If you are confused as to why a win at home against the Sooners didn’t raise the Gators’ ranking, it is due to NCAA gymnastics rankings being based on the National Qualifying Score (NQS) system, as I wrote last week.

This week, Florida will attempt to add another unprecedented feat — a second consecutive SEC season undefeated — to its laundry list of accolades, going against Olympic all-around gold medalist Sunisa Lee and the Auburn Tigers at Auburn to do so. Auburn is a rising team that has built on what Rowland helped create during her time on the Plains, and Lee’s star is shining bright, so the Gators will be in for a tougher fight that may have been predicted at the beginning of the season. It should be a great meet to watch.