Not even a plane stuck in the mud could stop this team from getting to the top.
The LSU Tigers gymnastics team extended their incredible run in the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship to the final act Friday by winning their semifinal with a 197.4750, the lowest score to win a semifinal since 2016. Florida advanced with the Tigers, but they finished second with a 197.4000. Cal finished with a 196.9125 and ended the season 7th overall, tied for the program’s best, while Denver finished last among teams at nationals with a 196.5000.
Beam 49.2750 (3rd after 1)
LSU began the meet by tying their lowest beam score since Elena Arenas (pronounced “Uh-len-uh Uh-reen-us”) took over the lead-off spot. She started things off with a 9.7375 on which she failed to hit any of her splits, had a hip check in her BHS LOSO and took an uncontrolled step forward on her roundoff (RO) back 1.5. She seemed to be most concerned with staying on the beam, which ended up being extremely important in the end. Alyona Shchennikova avenged her routine from 2021 national semis with a good 9.7750. She had a hip check on her full turn, short leaps and a bobble on her side aerial, but she nailed her acro series and stuck her BHS gainer full. Alexis Jeffrey was one of five LSU gymnasts making their nationals debuts, and she delivered a solid hit with a 9.8375. She turned a bit quick on her cat leap to switch side, flexed her feet in her switch side and had a low standing front, but she nailed her wolf turn, BHS LOSO and RO back 1.5 as has become the expectation. It still felt like a low score, but afternoon session scoring can be biting. Sierra Ballard followed with a 9.8125 that had some leg form in the BHS LOSO, short splits, a check on the kickover front and a very slight slide of the left foot on the RO back 1.5 that was very tough to see in person. Haleigh Bryant brought things to the next level with her 9.9375 that had a cheated turn on the straddle quarter but was brilliant otherwise. Aleah Finnegan finished the rotation with a 9.9125 in her nationals debut. The routine was perfect until the dismount, but she carried her momentum through her gainer full and hopped out to salute. Chloe Widner didn’t have a great day on the other three events she competed, but she earned a 9.9500 on her beam routine that stood as the top score on the event until Jade Carey scored a 9.9625 in the evening session. It broke the record for highest beam score by a Stanford gymnast at nationals and could’ve earned a 10 or two in the evening session.
Overall, while the Tigers could’ve been stronger on beam, they built their confidence as the rotation progressed and set themselves up for success on the floor.
Floor 49.4750 (2nd after 2)
LSU took the confidence they built off beam and used it as a springboard for a great floor rotation. Sierra led off with a 9.8000 with what might’ve been the worst routine of her season, a comment that’s more a testament to how great she’s been on floor all season than anything else. She underrotated her double layout (DLO) and stepped forward, underrotated her back 1.5 to front layout (FLO) and stepped back before finishing the two-pass routine with a hit switch leap to switch ring. Alyona followed with a 9.8875. The control on her front double full to Arabesque was less than ideal and she was short on her switch half, but her back 1.5 to FLO was gorgeous as was her Rudi to split. Chase Brock scored a 9.0000 on her routine, one that looked decent going into the final pass. Once again, she had to bail out of that final combination and she fell, putting the pressure on the rest of the lineup to hit. KJ Johnson made her nationals debut on floor after Elena struggled during warm-ups and scored a 9.8750. She began the routine with a fantastic full-in, but she fractured her foot in the same place she did after the Florida meet. She kept going, did a great back 1.5 to FLO that had slight control issues and finished with a good switch leap to short switch side half. All of this on a literal broken foot, all for her team, all with no regrets afterward. Aleah followed up by tying the LSU record for highest floor score in a national semifinal with a 9.9625 that ended up as the second-highest floor score between both sessions, only losing on her tour jete half turn that she often cheats. The double Arabian was unbelievable and the back 2.5 to front tuck looked better than it had all year. Haleigh finished off with a 9.9500 that could’ve gone higher in the evening session since all the judges took for was her ring position. The crowd went nuts for her front double front landing, one of the most powerful first passes in the country when it sticks, and I genuinely came close to jumping out of my seat.
Overall, floor team hit again, but they’ll have to adjust Saturday now that KJ is confirmed out. Chase had that weird mistake on floor, but it’s really fluky and hard to predict, especially when it wasn’t a problem in warm-ups.
Vault 49.2500 (2nd after 3)
LSU had their second 49.250 on vault in the past three meets, but they got lucky breaks that made it less meaningful. Elena led off with a 9.8250 Yurchenko Full (YF) that had leg separation in the air, a slide back and momentum carrying through the landing. Alyona followed with a 9.8375 Yurchenko 1.5 (Y1.5) that had a squatty landing and a scoot forward. Chase kept things going with a 9.8500 on her Y1.5 with an uncontrolled step forward, something that was also true of Aleah’s 9.8500 on her Omelianchik. She’d struggled to land the vault in the prior day’s podium training and sat her first attempt in warm-ups, but she nailed her second try and seemed to find her place after that. Bryce Wilson subbed in for KJ on vault with her own YF and scored a 9.8500 that looked pretty fine to me, but the vault camera angle from the ESPN+ stream was genuinely atrocious and I was on the other side of the arena from the vault. Haleigh anchored with a really weird 9.8625 on which she landed on the directional guideline and took a step back instead of a hop. This could’ve had the makings for a tight final rotation, but Denver and Cal turned their lights out by counting falls on beam and bars, respectively. LSU had a 0.5125 lead over Cal going into the final rotation and a 0.8625 lead over Denver.
Overall, the Tigers have to clean up vault, this isn’t going to cut it if they want to finish outside of fourth on Saturday. Haleigh’s block on her vault has me concerned, but she could just throw out a 10 and shut me up. I’ve seen her do it before.
Bars 49.4750 (1st after 4)
The Tigers closed out the meet with a very strong rotation. Alexis led off with a 9.7750 that had bent elbows in the Maloney, leg sep in the pak salto and a soft and squatty HIHO on which she stepped out to salute. Alexis puts the high in HIHO, and that forces her to have to brace herself when she lands her dismount to avoid getting a deduction for her hips being at or below her knees. She didn’t do that this time and it cost her. Ashley Cowan rocked her nationals debut with a 9.8750 that lost for flexed feet in her Ray and a small step back on her DLO. She stuck that DLO in warm-ups and the entire team went nuts; watch out when she does that in competition for the first time. Tori Tatum followed in Ashley’s footsteps with a 9.8750 of her own that lost for leg separation in her pak and a barely cheated low bar half turn, but it could’ve gone higher after the sun went down. Aleah followed with a 9.9250 that lost for her arms swinging under to maintain her balance and a soft left leg on her dismount. She stuck her Fontaine for the first time in three months in an absolutely clutch situation and went nuts afterward. That moment didn’t clinch LSU’s berth in the finals, but Alyona’s 9.8625 did. She flexed her feet in her Ray, did a poor low bar half turn and had some leg separation in her stuck dismount, but was fine otherwise. I recently learned that she doesn’t get deducted as much for form errors on her dismount because she’s not doing a DLO, she’s doing a JO skill that doesn’t exist in the elite code called a piked-in layout. It’s a D skill while the DLO is an E skill, which means it’s easier to do. Haleigh finished the meet and gave LSU their second victory of the season over Florida with a 9.9375 that had a far Jaeger catch and flexed feet in the double front half, but it was a victory lap routine to give LSU their second Four on the Floor berth and first since 2019 when ATVS was last on site to cover the championship.
Overall, this was the kind of bars rotation LSU needs when they begin the national championship on the event tomorrow.
Haleigh Bryant finished as the semifinal leader in the all-around with a national semifinal school-record 39.6875 that ended up as third overall. Aleah earned All-American honors on vault, floor and the all-around while Haleigh became the second gymnast in school history to earn All-American honors on all four events and the all-around, joining April Burkholder in 2005 and 2006. The Tigers did enough to win, but they need to clean things up for a great finish to an improbable climb.