DULUTH, Ga. — The Gators were in perfect position.
But then, it all came crashing down.
Top-seeded Florida scored a 197.400 on Saturday night to finish third behind second-place LSU (197.450) and champion Alabama (197.525) in the Southeastern Conference Championships.
Despite a red-hot start, the Gators capitulated on beam and fell short in their quest for the conference crown for the second year in a row.
“It was the best we’ve done at any SEC Championship or any national championship, for that matter, in the first two events,” coach Rhonda Faehn said. “We feel the pain right now, because beam was — awful.
“It was tough, and it was probably one of the toughest beam rotations that I can remember in my history at Florida.”
Amid the chaos inside the Arena at Gwinnett Center, the Gators held a hefty 99.200-98.750 lead over its closest opponent, Alabama, through the first two rotations of the competition.
Florida was coming off its second highest vault score in school history — a 49.625 — and a season-high 49.575 on bars led by Bridget Sloan’s second consecutive perfect 10 in the event.
It was the first ever 10 by a Gator in the SEC Championships and the first perfect mark on bars in the competition’s history.
The momentum was Florida’s.
The confidence was Florida’s.
The title was Florida’s.
Then, freshman Ericha Fassbender stepped up to start the team’s beam routine.
Within seconds, her foot missed the beam on a backflip and she fell hard against the wood, bounced off and sunk to the ground. She scored a 9.275.
Just like that, the momentum and confidence that had been gushing moments before was replaced by suffocating pressure.
Senior Rachel Spicer and sophomore Claire Boyce were the next two gymnasts to perform for Florida and handled it well, scoring a 9.875 and 9.900, respectively. Following them was freshman Alex McMurtry, the only Gator who hadn’t suffered a fall or been forced to exit a routine early all season.
But the 18-year-old fell victim to the biggest stage of her young career, and she also fell, scoring a 9.30. The sequence sent a look of despair over entire Gator team — especially McMurtry. Each girl knew what counting a fall meant for their championship hopes.
And just when it seemed the worst had been realized, senior Kytra Hunter lost balance in the very next routine and nearly fell herself, resulting in a 9.600 and ultimately a team score of 48.625.
“I don’t know what happened,” Hunter said. “We’re all human and we all make mistakes.”
Florida scored a 49.475 on floor to finish the meet, giving the Gators the top score in three of the four events. But the damage was done.
Faehn said she hopes this loss sticks with the team and provides the fire needed for the final weeks of the year.
“I told them that of course this is hard for them, because we had the title,” she said. “But we cannot let those mistakes happen and it was too much to overcome, and that I wanted this to really burn on their hearts … so that this fuels them for the last two meets of the season.”
Follow Graham Hack on Twitter @graham_hack24
Alex McMurtry falls off the balance beam during the Southeastern Conference Championships on March 21 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia. McMurtry scored a 9.30 on the event.