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Florida heads to NCAA Championships final after stirring semifinal comeback

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The Gators saved themselves after a nearly calamitous start on Thursday. Now, on Saturday, they go for it all.

NCAA Gymnastics: Women’s Gymnastics Championship Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday was a big day for the Florida Gators gymnastics programs.

And it was a good day — after nearly being a heartbreaking one.

The final accounting of the day says that Trinity Thomas captured her first NCAA titles and did it in style. She won the bars, floor, and all-around titles, and became the first Gator to win an event title since Alicia Boren in 2019, the first Gator to win the all-around since Alex McMurtry in 2017, and the first — and only — Gator to accrue three individual titles since Bridget Sloan in 2016.

Megan Skaggs also had an excellent night, placing third in the all-around behind Thomas and Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee of Auburn. Skaggs earned All-American honors on all four events and in the around after her very successful day.

Freshman Leanne Wong was fifth in the all-around, and picked up her first four NCAA Championships honors, doing so on vault, bars, floor, and in the all-around.

And the Gators and the Auburn Tigers advanced from their semifinal to meet the Oklahoma Sooners and the Utah Utes on Saturday.

But that isn’t the full story of the semifinal, and Florida’s chapter of it was one of resilience.

The Gators had a relatively slow start on vault, where a smattering of non-stick landings left the Gators counting two scores starting with 9.7 and without a truly huge number to counterweigh them. And after that, Florida’s leadoff bars performer, Sloane Blakely, came off during her routine, leaving the Gators in need of five hit landings to avoid counting a score that would have been immensely damaging to their prospects of advancing from the semifinal session.

Furthermore, Florida’s bars rotation was interrupted by what was described on the ESPN broadcast of the event as a loose apparatus, with a stoppage to fix whatever was wrong freezing out the final two Gators competitors for about 20 minutes.

But even with that adversity, Florida persevered and prevailed, getting those five necessary hit routines to stay in third and within shouting distance of Auburn and Michigan.

And after an excellent beam rotation and an all-time performance on the floor — where their enormous score of 49.750, led by a 10.0 for Thomas, reset the record Florida’s 2013 team set for a floor rotation in NCAA Championships action — the Gators leapt all the way to first, giving themselves a chance to win a national championship this afternoon.

The Gators will again have the Olympic rotation, starting on vault and ending on floor, in their quest of a fourth NCAA team title. And though this should be a very strong competition, with Utah, Oklahoma, and Auburn all looking to be peaking right in time for the season’s most important day, I believe that if everyone has something like their “normal” day, the Gators will come out on top.

On Thursday, the Gators had the second highest score of the four teams that will compete on Saturday even with a low score on vault and a lower score on bars. They were right in their range on beam and were just about lights-out — yes, there remains some room for improvement on even that score — on floor. Oklahoma, likely to be Florida’s best competitor this Saturday, also had a lower score on vault and was in their middle range on beam, but posted one of their top scores on bars and their highest of the season on floor.

Both teams would probably like to boost their scores from semifinal sessions by getting some better landings on vault, but Oklahoma will also need to repeat its excellent bars and floor performances to stay ahead of a good day by Florida.

Auburn, meanwhile, had a great day on Thursday — and finished 0.1375 behind the Gators, who did not have their best day. If the Tigers repeat or exceed their Thursday, they will have a chance to win it all, but most would forecast Florida and Oklahoma staying ahead of the second SEC team in the mix.

Likewise, Utah is probably going to need errors from the other squads to win a national title. The Red Rocks had a massive vault rotation on Thursday, but struggled some on bars, and enter Saturday off the lowest-scoring semifinal performance of the four teams.

Not to put too fine a point on it: Florida comes into this event as a slight favorite.

Some words of calm and reason — for future Sam as much as it is for you — before the chaos begins, though: The Gators start on vault, which is arguably their lowest scoring event. They finish on beam and floor, which are their highest-scoring events. Oklahoma starts on floor, which is their highest scoring event. Utah starts on beam, their highest scoring event.

So: Don’t panic if the Gators are in third after the first rotation. There will still be a lot of great gymnastics to go.

And this Florida team has already shown the virtues of not panicking.

Saturday’s competition airs live on ABC. Event-specific streams — better, often, for evaluating a single team’s performances — are available via WatchESPN, with links to each available at the bottom of this article.