Leading with one rotation to go, Florida’s gymnastics team was in a familiar position.
In front of an O’Connell Center crowd of 7,129, the squad was in its stronghold, protected by a raucous core of support.
And yet, for the first time in nearly a decade, that stronghold was cracked, laid siege to by another comeback effort.
Losing their first regular-season home meet since Jan. 18, 2008, the No. 2 Gators were upset 197.900-197.875. by No. 7 LSU on Saturday night.
“Well, that stung a little bit,” coach Jenny Rowland said. “However, I think there were some good things that came from tonight. The girls, we made some mistakes. You know what? It’s going to happen. But I think the team picked it up to the best of their ability, and everybody covered each other’s backs.”
Florida (6-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) opened strong, incrementally increasing its vault scores with each passing performance.
Senior Bridgette Caquatto and sophomore Ericha Fassbender opened with dual 9.850’s before yielding to the one-two punch of senior Bridget Sloan and freshman Alicia Boren.
Following a double-shot of 9.900’s from the heart of the lineup, sophomores Kennedy Baker and Alex McMurtry anchored the Gators’ opening rotation with a pair of 9.925’s, helping to establish a 49.500-49.325 lead over their opposition.
However, the Tigers (6-1, 4-1 SEC) clawed back following a second rotation that saw their vault competitors tie or solidify all three podium finishes.
Ashleigh Gnat — the nation’s leader in perfect 10’s on the vault — posted an event-winning 9.950 in the sixth spot, following up Myia Hambrick’s 9.925.
Over on the bars, Florida struggled to keep pace with LSU.
The nadir of the rotation came in the form of a McMurtry 9.025, the result of a fall suffered on a failed release move. Caquatto paced the Gators’ rotational team, notching a 9.925 and taking home her second-consecutive uneven bars title.
Florida answered the challenge on the balance beam, buoyed by four counted scores at or above a 9.900.
Leading the charge were Baker and McMurtry. The former posted a season-best 9.900, while the latter equaled her collegiate best with a 9.950, a fitting response in the wake of a poor showing in the rotation prior.
But amidst a solid rotation, an unusual Sloan slip-up foreshadowed things to come.
With the Gators nursing a 148.400-148.325 advantage, UF’s floor team set to work in the final rotation, hoping to preserve its tenuous 0.075-point lead.
McMurtry, making her collegiate all-around and floor debut, scored a third-place 9.900, tying for a podium spot with teammates Boren and Caquatto.
“I was so nervous,” McMurtry said. “I think that was the most nervous I’ve ever been in a competition, just because with all my heart, with everything in me, I wanted to make that routine.”
However, Florida failed to cling to its edge, downed by a 49.575 balance beam score from the Tigers.
And, in spite of a second-place effort of 9.925 from Baker, UF couldn’t keep pace with LSU’s 9.915 average.
But the greatest surprise, perhaps, came in the center of Florida’s rotation.
Sloan — UF’s most consistent competitor — uncharacteristically blundered once more, stepping out of bounds on a tumbling pass. The Gators were forced to burn a score of hers for the second time on the night.
And even though her five teammates had her back, subsequent beam scores of 9.900, 9.925 and 9.950 from LSU gymnasts Sydney Ewing, Sarah Finnegan and Gnat, respectively, punished the Gator’s faux pas.
“I have learned through all of my years as a gymnast that you’re gonna have rough meets,” Sloan said. “I’m gonna look back at this meet and say ‘You know what? I’m glad we had those mistakes,’ because, as Alex (McMurtry) said, you have no idea (of) the fire that is literally burning inside me right now.
“I would love to have a rematch, and that’s what SEC’s is for.”