In a back-and-forth opening semifinal of the 2023 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships, the only rotation LSU led was the final one as the Tigers notched a 197.475 to qualify for their ninth NCAA team final in program history. They join fellow conference powerhouse Florida, whose 197.4000 qualified ahead of California’s 196.9125 and Denver’s 196.5000 after the two non-SEC programs both counted a fall.
It’s been an improbable journey to the Four on the Floor final for LSU, which hit a number of roadblocks this season that could’ve derailed it at any point. One of the Tigers’ most promising rosters has been riddled with injury—Kiya Johnson only competed in two meets, Cammy Hall was sidelined during preseason, and KJ Johnson missed over a month—illnesses took a toll midseason, LSU nearly didn’t advance after ties twice at regionals, and the team plane got stuck in mud taxiing to the runway to get to Fort Worth for championships.
“They are a special, special group,” said head coach Jay Clark after the semifinal win. “[They] came in here really, you know, kind of knowing we were playing with house money a little bit and glad to be here. We wanted to enjoy the ride, take it as far as we possibly could, compete hard, not get timid, and create some sense of expectation that really hasn’t been there for us all year.”
Although the Tigers only grabbed the lead at the end thanks to a strong finish on bars, they were within striking distance the entire meet. Haleigh Bryant and Aleah Finnegan had phenomenal days leading LSU, sitting in first and second in the all around at the end of the session (ultimately finishing third and fifth, respectively). Finnegan also finished as runner-up on floor. That event highlighted the day for the Tigers, where the duo’s perfectly stuck tumbling brought in massive scores—Bryant a 9.9500 and Finnegan a 9.9625—to erase an early lineup fall.
“It’s one thing to do it in practice, over and over again, but to carry out and just show everyone what we’ve been working on, it’s so special,” said Finnegan when asked about LSU’s floor performance.
“It’s so rewarding just knowing all your hard work has paid off and just knowing you did your best gymnastics for your team out there,” Bryant added.
The Gators had one of their weaker performances of the season at one of the worst times but were still able to advance to the championship after beam woes dropped them to fourth at the halfway point of the semifinal. Trinity Thomas, who was questionable to compete after an injury at regionals, hit a bars set for a 9.950 in the first rotation and vaulted for the first time in weeks for a 9.900 to push Florida to finals.
“So, bars practice day was going well, and I did some runs on the vault runway. Then today, during warmups, I vaulted, and I felt good, so I told Jenny that’s what I want to do,” said Thomas about her day-by-day approach to her lower leg injury.
“The coaches and the team had all the confidence in the world if [Thomas] says, ‘I’m good to go,’ she’s going,” said Florida head coach Jenny Rowland on trusting Thomas.
LSU and Florida will face the top two teams from Semifinal II, Utah and Oklahoma, in Saturday’s championship bout at 4 p.m. E.T. on ABC. The Gators will be seeking their fourth title, while the Tigers are aiming for their program’s first.
“My challenge to them is going to be the same. Stay true to who you are. Let’s compete free. Let’s not scoreboard-watch. Let’s just go out and do our 24 routines and look up there and see what happens,” Clark said about his mentality for the team heading into the final. “They’ve been through a lot. I want them to enjoy it.”
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Article by Brandis Heffner
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