February 18, 2023
What a tremendous night for LSU. A team that failed to beat Kentucky and Arkansas pulled off one of the biggest regular-season upsets of the past few years as the Tigers moved to 3-5 and 3-3 in the SEC with a monumental 198.100-197.975 win over #2 Florida in front of a loud PMAC crowd, preventing the Gators from earning a share of the SEC regular season title in the process. Despite the result, neither team moved in the rankings for this week, though they each set up a great NQS.
The historic accomplishment in historical context:
Florida losing was a big deal, but just how big of a deal was it? Well, for starters, it was their first regular-season loss since a 2/22/19 home loss to Georgia 35 meets prior. That was also their last SEC regular season loss, meaning LSU snapped a 28-meet unbeaten streak, too (27-0-1 with a tie to Auburn in 2022). Florida’s last road loss in the regular season came at OU on 2/1/19, 18 meets prior to this one, and their last SEC road loss came at Mizzou on 3/2/18, 17 SEC road meets prior to this one. One of the more incredible streaks LSU snapped was Florida’s win streak in meets in which they won beam. They’d won 17 consecutive regular-season and postseason meets in which they won beam, with their last loss coming in the 2021 SEC Championship. Excluding postseason, they had won 33 consecutive meets in which they won beam (last loss was at OU in 2019). They won the beam, and they couldn’t win the meet despite not having to count a fall.
LSU Vault (49.475); Florida Bars (49.425)
Unlike the 2021 meeting between these two teams, LSU and Florida got the opportunity to start on their best events. Elena Arenas kicked things off for the Tigers with a solid 9.875 on her Yurchenko Full (YF). Alyona Shchennikova fought hard to try and stick her Yurchenko 1.5 (Y1.5) but had to hop back and earned a 9.825. Aleah Finnegan was up next with her Omelianchik, and while she failed to get another 10 like she did against Auburn, she finessed her way into a 9.950 by saluting once she did a small hop and not stepping into it like many others would. Chase Brock’s Y1.5 had a large, uncontrolled step that earned a 9.825. KJ Johnson hopped back on her YF and earned a 9.850. Haleigh Bryant finished things off with a near-textbook front handspring (FHS) pike half, but one judge noticed she was carrying her momentum through her landing and she earned a heavily booed 9.975.
Just looking at LSU’s vault, they need to get those sticks back, it’s vital to building early leads or retaining late leads (depending on the order in postseason).
Overall, LSU and Florida scored well on their first events, but the second rotation cost Florida more than they could’ve imagined.
LSU Bars (49.500); Florida Vault (49.350): LSU 98.975-98.775
This was the rotation where LSU secured the lead needed to win the meet and the separation point at which Florida put themselves in the worst possible spot. Vault was Florida’s worst event coming in and they had an off meet at the worst possible moment. Chloi Clark led off for Florida with a 9.850 on her YF thanks to a hop. Alexis Jeffrey led off LSU’s bars lineup with a 9.900 in which she hit her handstands and lost points for some imperfections between the bars (perhaps arm bends or leg separation in pak salto). However, she stuck her HIHO and kicked off the best bars rotation of LSU’s season with a good routine. Leanne Wong followed up with a Podkopayeva, a tough 10.0 SV vault that she flung back for a 9.800. After getting pulled from bars lineup against Auburn to give her a chance to reset her confidence, Elena was back with an adjusted routine. Instead of doing her pak salto immediately out of her Tkatchev, she did two handstands in between her Tkatchev and pak. It worked out in her favor as she stuck her double layout (DLO) quite well and scored a bars career high 9.900. Payton Richards threw out a Y1.5 to try and match, but she hopped and earned a 9.875. Tori Tatum was next for LSU and kept the stick train going with the best routine she’s ever done while also tying a career high. She had a wonky low bar half turn, but this was the best of the first three LSU bars routines despite it, and it was capped off with a powerfully stuck HIHO. Kayla DiCello tried to break Florida’s 9.900 drought, but she hopped on her Y1.5 and had to settle for a 9.875. Aleah followed up with a 9.850. She arched her back on her bail handstand and took a step on her double Arabian dismount, but she kept the composure and calmness LSU needed to keep pushing past the Gators. Trinity Thomas finally pushed Florida over 9.900 with a 9.925 Y1.5, but she still hopped. Alyona brought the hammer back down with her 9.850, and while she missed her first and third handstands, she stuck her DLO on her toes (should’ve been on her full feet, odd she didn’t). Bri Edwards finished Florida’s lineup with a YF that flew back the least of any of their vaults and earned a 9.825. Once again, LSU finished with Haleigh who delivered a 9.950 that lost points on a missed second handstand. Normally, she does a squat on the low bar to get back to the high bar, but she had to improvise a swing underneath the bar when she realized that wasn’t going to work (not a deduction).
Just looking at LSU’s bars, those landings need to be the standard for the rest of the season to keep building good scores. When postseason rolls around, that could be the difference between advancing and not. Also, huge props to Tori and Elena for excellent routines.
This was the turning point of the meet because the judges were taking landing deductions and Florida racked them up on vault. However, if LSU wanted to win, they had to make sure they had a strong beam rotation to avoid letting the lead slip.
LSU Beam (49.550); Florida Floor (49.575): LSU 148.525-148.350
The attacking mindset LSU showed on beam at Auburn translated to this meet as well as they could’ve hoped. Elena started the beam rotation with a solid 9.825, missing her split leap and stutter stepping her round-off (RO) back 1.5 landing, but she showed great composure and never wobbled. Alyona followed Elena with 9.850 that saw her miss her split on her split jump and land with a low chest on her side aerial (with adjustment) but was otherwise fine. Kai Rivers was not about to let that happen when she delivered a 9.900 for the second consecutive meet, only getting docked for a bent knee in her BHS LOSO series and for being short on her switch half. KJ was back in the beam lineup and scored a career-high 9.875, in part because of a change to the routine that took out the dance series she was struggling with and replaced it with a dance/acro combination series of switch leap to standing back tuck to straddle quarter that she hit. The biggest issue with the routine was that she hopped back on her BHS 1.5 dismount. Haleigh was on fire already and continued to bring the heat with a 9.925 that must be called out for one judge’s absolute refusal to take more than half a tenth for the major balance check on the landing of the standing front tuck (judging was bad). Finishing things off as she has most of the season was Aleah. BHS LO LOSO was superb, switch leap and split jump had great split and amplitude, full turn was perfect, front aerial was perfect and the gainer full was stuck in perfect position. That was as 10 as it gets and the judges wasted no time in flashing the score. Despite the building not being as packed as it had been at other meets, the crowd produced a roar so loud that nobody could hear DiCello’s floor music start playing. Aleah became the first LSU gymnast to score a 10 in three straight meets since Ashleigh Gnat in 2016 and the first to do so on three different events in school history. As if it couldn’t get any better, at the same time that happened, the LSU softball team hit a walk-off homer to beat Utah because this was a night of destiny.
Just looking at the beam team, that was the best beam rotation of the year and came at the perfect time. KJ’s new series could allow her to stay in the lineup, Elena continued to be a solid lead and Kai is back to feeling it in her new spot.
Overall, LSU held a slimmer lead than the 0.300 they blew in 2021, but they’d held off the hounds for now. If floor was solid and Florida wasn’t absolutely lights out, victory was in reach.
LSU Floor (49.575); Florida Beam (49.625): LSU 198.100-197.975
This was it, and they hit when it mattered. Sierra Ballard led off with a solid 9.875 on which she slid a bit on her DLO and looked short on her switch half but was otherwise very good and energizing. Alyona followed with a 9.925 on which she slid on her front double full and looked short on her switch half, yet she brought the glowing enthusiasm for which she’s known and finished it off well. Chase would’ve been in this spot had her warmups gone better, but instead, it went to Elena in what became her first collegiate all-around appearance. She did her two-pass routine well enough to keep the ball rolling, scoring a 9.825 because of some control issues in her two passes. The score was the lowest of any LSU floor routine, but it was a solid hit in a spot that had seen hit-or-miss performances in the past month. Florida was beginning to gain back some ground at this point after DiCello scored a 9.975 on her beam, putting the pressure on KJ to hit. She managed a 9.950 despite nearly stepping out sliding back on her full-in and sliding a bit on her double tuck. Then Trinity Thomas got her sixth career beam 10 and 25th career 10 on all events with a routine that was a real treat to see in person and was very deserving of the score it got. She finished with a 39.850 in the all-around, the highest AA score in 2023 so far. Aleah had to follow that up with something solid, and she was perfect until she tucked her final pass instead of laying it out. While it may not have been nail check worthy, it still earned a 9.900 and guaranteed that LSU would score 198 on the night. Florida was down to their last breath, they needed a 9.925 from Leanne Wong to have a shot at tying the Tigers. She did a decent routine, but it wasn’t enough. A 9.900 on a 9.95/9.85 judge split, the only 0.1+ split of the night for either team, guaranteed the upset, but that score came after Haleigh got the flag to go. In 2021, she sat her final pass, a mistake which gave Florida the come-from-behind win. She hit her first two passes (lacked control on first) and a better switch ring than she had all season, then she hit her FHS front double full to finish things off with a 9.925 as the arena went wild knowing it was over while also setting a new career high in the all-around with a 39.775. Talk about a redemption arc.
This was a solid rotation, though Aleah tucking her layout was really strange. Elena came through in the clutch and was vital to bridging the front and back halves of the lineup. They hit when they needed to and made sure that a Florida team with a season high on beam couldn’t catch them.
First off, Elena Arenas was absolutely phenomenal in this meet despite what the scores say
This was a tremendous moment for this team. This was a team that lost Cammy Hall, a graduate transfer who became an immediate part of the family, before the season. They lost Kiya Johnson during the Kentucky meet and had to band together to face #1 Oklahoma two and a half days later. They lost to Arkansas on the road for the second time in program history in a meet they gave away with a timid beam rotation. They had a great meet against Auburn and came up short, and that kicked them into overdrive. They took on a team that hadn’t known regular season losing since before Covid was discovered with a roster that had just four people that knew what it was like to experience a Florida regular season loss (including Rachel Baumann, who was a freshman on the victorious Georgia team). Florida threw as many punches as they could, they never counted a fall, they scored 9.950+ six times and they won beam, but none of that mattered because at the end of the meet, the team that executed better for 24 routines won.
However, there’s one more thing that I would like to note. Florida is infamous for getting overscored wherever they go, and LSU had the luxury of being at home and getting those benefits. With all the talk on Twitter about who should’ve scored what and who was better, I decided to enlist a friend who is a former gymnast and current coach to help me rescore this meet both for LSU and Florida. In the end, we judged LSU as having scored a 196.975, meaning they were overscored by 1.125.
We judged Florida at 195.775 with an overscore of 2.200. Our rescore had LSU as winners by 1.200 in a meet the Tigers thoroughly dominated. I have some problems with judging I need to explain in more focus, but that’s for later.
In the end, this was a massive win for LSU, but it’s the time of the year when it becomes a true war of attrition. Head coach Jay Clark said that Haleigh has an inflamed shoulder and that Alyona was close to being out of the all-around with a groin injury that forced her to rest the three days before the meet. LSU’s opening NQS is a 197.335, a number that must climb by selection Monday in mid-March. This win is sweet, but it must be the springboard for the rest of the season.