EUGENE, Ore. — A stirring come-from-behind win in the first running event of the finals at the NCAA men’s track and field championships Friday was supposed to be the starting point for LSU’s run to a possible team title.
Instead, a thrilling victory in the 4x100-meter relay proved to be extremely costly for the fourth-ranked Tigers.
Poised to challenge for the team title with eight solid scoring chances on the track at Hayward Field, everything changed in the blink of an eye when LSU sprinter Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake surged to the finish line in the relay.
In bringing his team from back in the pack to win in 38.42 seconds — a Hayward Field record — Mitchell-Blake suffered a hamstring cramp that all but put an end to LSU’s title aspirations, considering he was expected to score big points in the 100 and 200 meters later in the evening.
“I’m really disappointed for the guys,” LSU coach Dennis Shaver said after his team finished in fifth with 41 points. “I’m not going to say we would have won, but if Nate had been healthy, we would have made it interesting.”
Florida went on to win the team title with 62 points, followed by Arkansas (56), Texas A&M (50), Oregon (48) and LSU.
The Tigers’ title hopes evaporated when Mitchell-Blake surged to the front in the homestretch and lunged to hold off Houston (38.44), Arkansas (38.49) and Florida (38.54).
Instead of celebrating with teammates Jaron Flournoy, Renard Howell and Tremayne Acy, Mitchell-Blake limped off after a hotly contested race that saw the top four teams separated by just 12/100ths of a second.
Mitchell-Blake came back 50 minutes later for the 100 but was in obvious pain when he tried a few warm-up starts from the blocks. On one, he gingerly ran for about 20 meters, then stopped and bit down on his shirt.
He started the race but jogged through the 100 meters to finish eighth in 12.05 seconds after running the semifinals Wednesday in 10.09 seconds.
After crossing the finish line, Mitchell-Blake threw his hip number to the ground and headed straight to the medical tent and withdrew from the 200.
Mitchell-Blake, who recorded the fastest time in the nation in the 200 at the SEC meet with a 19.95, looked strong in posting the fastest time in Wednesday night’s semifinals.
The injury to Mitchell-Blake, who won both sprints and anchored the winning 4x100 relay at the Southeastern Conference championships May 14, effectively put an end to the Tigers’ title hopes.
“We evaluated him and found that it was a cramp, so we tried to wait it out,” Shaver said. “We left the 100 up to him, but I told him if he went down there to start, I wanted him to finish and get a point for the team. It wasn’t a serious injury, but it certainly took us out of the game.”
But it didn’t help that it was a cool, damp evening with temperatures hovering in the low 60s.
It also didn’t help, Shaver said, that he asked Jordan Moore to win the 110-meter hurdles final that came just before the open 100.
Moore got off to a fast start and was holding his own midway through the race. But he faded and finished eighth in 13.88 seconds.
“When I knew Nate was going to be out, I told Jordan that ha had to try and win,” Shaver said.
“That probably wasn’t the right thing to do because he was too aggressive and didn’t do what he’s capable of doing.”
LSU did try to fight back after the loss of Mitchell-Blake.
The Tigers did get some good news a little later when Fitzroy Dunkley and Michael Cherry raced to a 2-3 finish in the 400 meters with both recording personal records.
Dunkley had a strong run in the home stretch and posted a time of 45.06 seconds, while Cherry, who was trying to catch Florida’s Arman Hall, was clocked in 45.11. Hall won in 44.82 seconds.
Without Mitchell-Blake in the 200, Howell came out of Lane 8 to finish fourth in 20.55 seconds.
Despite the disappointment of losing Mitchell-Blake, Howell was proud of the Tigers winning the relay after coming into the meet with the fastest time in the nation.
“It’s very good. … We came in No. 1, and we definitely wanted to show that we had that mark for a reason,” Howell said. “Coming out, we knew we just had to get the stick around and everybody do what they have been doing all season. We got the win, which was good.”
LSU finished off the tough day with a second relay win, this one in the 4x400 to close out the meet as LaMar Bruton, Cherry, Cyril Grayson and Dunkley got the stick around in 3 minutes, 0.69 seconds.
Like Mitchell-Blake, Dunkley had a strong anchor carry and passed Florida in the final 150 meters to secure the victory going away.