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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

No. 2 Florida closes out Southeastern Conference regular season as champions

Florida beats out Kentucky to finish SEC regular season

The Florida Gators gymnastics team celebrates its Southeastern Conference championship win following its victory against the Kentucky Wildcats Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.
The Florida Gators gymnastics team celebrates its Southeastern Conference championship win following its victory against the Kentucky Wildcats Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Florida Gators gymnastics became the 2023 Southeastern Conference regular season champion with its win against the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats. The accolade marked the Gators’ fifth-straight conference title. 

The No. 2 Florida Gators (9-1, 6-1 SEC) competed at home against Kentucky (7-3, 4-2 SEC) for the Gators’ senior night. Florida finished with 198.150 — its second-highest score of the 2023 season — to defeat the Wildcats, who finished with a score of 197.575. 

When speaking about the Gators’ last home meet of the season and senior night, head coach Jenny Rowland spoke highly of the seniors.

“None of us would be the same people without these six amazing young women,” Rowland said.

The Gators won three of the four events and put on a show for the sold-out Stephen C. O’Connell Center. This is Florida’s fifth sold-out crowd of the season — 9,298 people were in attendance. This number raises the average attendance to 9,351 people per meet in 2023 — a new UF record. 

Freshman Kayla DiCello received her fifth SEC Freshman of the Week honor prior to the meet. She had a standout performance Friday, scoring above a 9.900 in three of her events; she finished with a 9.800 on vault. The freshman finished with an all-around score of 39.600. 

Florida began the meet on the vault. Kentucky junior Isabella Magnelli and senior Raena Worley tied for first with a score of 9.950. Sophomore Leanne Wong finished in third place with a score of 9.925.

UF ended the event with a 49.300; the Wildcats ended with a 49.475.

The Gators found their momentum heading into the second rotation: uneven bars. A three-way tie for the event’s highest score was secured. Wong, Thomas and DiCello all scored 9.975s. 

Florida dominated in the event with a 49.800, while the Wildcats earned a 49.200. Friday’s score of 49.800 on uneven bars is a UF program record and now the nation’s highest score on any event in 2023. 

Tensions were high in the O’Connell Center during the uneven bars rotation for the Gators. DiCello, Thomas and Wong each achieved near-perfect scores with at least one judge scoring their performance a 10.0. The crowd expressed their disappointment in the final scores.

Florida continued its success as it moved into the balance beam in the third rotation. DiCello and Kentucky senior Raena Worley tied for first with a score of 9.925. Thomas and Wildcats fifth-year Arianna Patterson tied for third with a score of 9.900.

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UF snuck ahead with a 49.450; Kentucky trailed close behind with a 49.400.

The Gators finished with their floor routines. Thomas scored first place with a 9.975. Senior Payton Richards followed closely behind with a score of 9.925 for third place.

Florida’s 49.600 gave them their third event win; the Wildcats ended the floor with a 49.500.

Thomas had a standout performance against the Wildcats. She scored a 9.850 in vault and more than a 9.900 in every other event.

She finished with an all-around score of 39.700. Thomas holds the UF all-around wins records with 28 meet-high scores. Thomas has also achieved history as the only gymnast in National Collegiate Athletic Association history to get four gym slams. 

Thomas spoke through tears when describing her senior night.

“I am so emotional because I have loved every second of time here,” Thomas said. “Gator nation has become my family.”

Florida honored three of their graduate students who will graduate this year.  A tribute event was announced for Savannah Schoenherr following uneven bars. Leah Clapper made an appearance on the balance beam as exhibition. Halley Taylor performed an exhibition floor routine.

Richards reflected positively on her time as a Florida Gator.

“This year has been pretty special,” Richards said. “For a while, freshman year was the best, but this year blew it out of the water.”

Florida’s next meet will be against the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners. The teams will face off at 9 p.m. March 3 in the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma. The match will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Contact Jori Rzepecki at Follow her on Twitter @jorirzepecki.

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Jori Rzepecki

Jori Rzepecki is a first-year journalism major and the Gymnastics reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, she enjoys binge-watching television shows and reading books.

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