Florida walked over to the balance beam with laser-like focus, the most dreaded exercise in gymnastics, trailing LSU 148.700-148.500. The beam is the most unforgiving gymnastics exercise because it measures 10 centimeters wide — barely wider than a hockey puck.
The Gators’ long odds resembled Kerri Strug’s, who vaulted to gold after severely injuring her ankle in the 1996 Olympics. She helped Team USA upset Russia, sticking the landing using only one foot.
But instead of a rolled ankle, UF was set back by a slip-up from senior Megan Skaggs. She was completing her aerial series when she lost her balance, backing the Gators into a corner.
The quintet of freshman Ellie Lazzari, senior Alyssa Baumann, sophomore Payton Richards and juniors Trinity Thomas and Leah Clapper refused to back down with no margin for error. All of them recorded scores of 9.900 or better.
But their defiant rally still didn’t guarantee them victory. The Tigers only needed a 9.875 on floor from freshman Haleigh Bryant to secure the win.
She exuberated confidence from the get-go, winking to her team after her second tumbling pass.
But karma struck as she couldn’t stick the landing on her final tumbling pass, falling to her knees in shock and disgust.
The Gators turned their eyes to the scoreboard to see if they’ve officially won. Bryant’s name finally flashed across the screen. She recorded a drop score of 9.425 as Florida screamed with joy, hugging each other.
Thomas knew this meet would be a battle that would come down to the final routine.
“We knew we were gonna have to fight tonight and that's what we did,” she said. “We fought for every handstand, every little skill, every landing and we did it and I'm so proud of them.”
Florida surged back after trailing the whole meet, defeating LSU 198.150-198.050 to stay undefeated Friday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Coach Jenny Rowland compared the meet’s atmosphere to the SEC Championship meet because of how suspenseful and intense it was.
LSU was ranked seventh, per Road to Nationals, heading into vault. The Tigers worst event statistically, but it didn’t phase the Tigers. They posted four scores north of 9.925, hoisting them to a 49.600-49.400 lead.
They were led to a season-high by sophomore Kiya Johnson and Bryant recorded a 9.950. For the Gators, Thomas and junior Savannah Schoenherr stood out on the uneven bars with a 9.975 and 9.925, respectively.
This was the first time all season the Gators trailed. This applied immense pressure on them to perform well on vault, one of their strongest events.
However, Florida failed to cut into the Tigers’ lead after two rotations, despite three scores greater than or equal to 9.900. Both teams tallied a 49.550 in the second rotation and LSU maintained a 99.150-98.150 lead.
It seemed like the Gators needed CPR heading into the floor exercise. But Thomas’ performance delivered, resuscitating the team.
Heading into Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she had yet to achieve her fifth-career perfect score. The York, Pennsylvania, native had flirted with perfection twice this season in victories versus Auburn and Arkansas. She also recorded 9.975 on vault and bars Friday night.
Thomas smoothly sailed through her floor routine. She was bursting with energy before her last tumbling pass. She stood up after flexing like a butterfly on stage and galloped across the floor.
Thomas nailed the landing, sporting a large smile like she knew she had just earned another 10.
The Gators mobbed her in celebration. They threw their hands toward the ceiling to call for a perfect score. The third time was Thomas’s charm as the judges rewarded the American international with her second-career 10 on that event.
“I’ve been working for, trying to control those landings,” she said about her floor routine. “I finally got it all together, put in one routine.”
Florida capitalized on the energy from her performance in the last rotation, roaring back to knock off the Tigers 198.150-198.050.
The Gators’ 198.150 is the highest score recorded in the nation this season. They still claim three of the top 10 scores in the country. Their score is also tied for the tenth-highest score in program history.
Thomas collected more hardware, collecting at least a share of all four event titles. Her all-around score of 39.90 is a Florida record and places her No. 5 all-time in NCAA history.
After proving its dominance against LSU, Florida returns to the O’Connell Center in its annual “Link to Pink meet” next Friday night at 6:45 against No. 15 Kentucky.
Contact Zachary Huber at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber.