FORT WORTH, Texas — From virtually the first moment the LSU gymnastics team stepped on the floor Friday for their Semifinal I of the NCAA Championships, adversity strode in right beside the Tigers in its own sequined costume.
Adversity has been LSU’s teammate virtually all season. So it probably came as no surprise to the Tigers that they had to deal with another helping of it as sophomore Christina Desiderio led off balance beam with a fall late in her routine for a 9.115, her first fall in the event since Week 2 at Auburn.
The score left the rest of LSU’s gymnasts to pick up the slack. Something they have become accustomed to doing for each other all season.
“That’s something we had to learn early this season,” senior McKenna Kelley said, “that we have to rally. If there is a mistake, the next person’s job is to hit (the rotation) and keep the ball rolling.”
After a nervy first rotation, which found LSU in last place with a 49.1875, the Tigers started hitting and started rolling. Three straight routines of 49.4375 or better on floor, vault and uneven bars left No. 3-seeded LSU in second place behind No. 2 UCLA but comfortably in the second of two qualifying spots for Saturday’s championship final.
LSU posted a score of 197.5125 to UCLA’s 197.675, but easily outpaced No. 6 Michigan (197.200) and No. 5 Utah (196.725) to advance. The Tigers and Bruins will take on No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 4 Denver, which advanced out of Semifinal II.
“Never did I have a doubt we would pull it off,” said senior Lexie Preissman, back in action on floor and bars after sitting out the NCAA regional at LSU with an arm injury. “We’re Fighting Tigers for a reason.”
The Tigers go in pursuit of their elusive first NCAA title at 6 p.m. in the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena. The meet will be televised on ESPNU.
This is the eighth trip to the NCAA final for LSU and the sixth in the past seven years. The big difference is this year is the first time the championship meet was trimmed from what was called the Super Six to the the final four.
“This was hard,” junior Kennedi Edney said. “This setup is all about perfection. Competition-wise, you have to be at your best. But it is in a good way that it’s harder.”
As much as any Tiger on Friday, Edney was at her best when the team needed her most.
After a slightly wobbly 9.8125 on beam, Edney was on fire the rest of the afternoon. She came through with a clutch 9.9125 on floor, tied for the NCAA individual title with a 9.95 on vault (she also won the NCAA vault crown in 2017) and closed with a 9.925 on uneven bars.
“Kennedi is a competitor,” senior McKenna Kelley said. “When the lights go on, that kid shows up. She has a good time. She keeps it loose and fun, but she’ll get up and do her job.”
Edney does her job without ever glancing at the other scores. To her, the pressure to pick up her teammate’s lower scores doesn’t even enter the picture.
“I don’t look,” Edney said, “so I don’t really know until the end of the whole meet. I couldn’t answer that question (whether there was pressure) because I don’t watch.”
Finnegan and Edney both earned four All-American honors on the day, finishing second and third in the all-around behind Ross in their semifinal with scores of 39.650 and 39.600, respectively.
Led by Edney’s score on vault, LSU briefly took the lead after three rotations with a 49.450 to post 148.075. UCLA eclipsed LSU at the end with a 49.6125 on floor while the Tigers went 49.4375 on bars, led by Finnegan’s 9.95 to emerge as NCAA champion in that event. Like Edney, she also won the NCAA bars title in 2017.
“It’s not how you start but how you finish,” LSU coach D-D Breaux said. “We learned from our adversity. It made us tougher, more focused, a team that was determined. The message was set your jaw and let’s go get it.”
It was the first time LSU (26-4) did not finish first in any dual or multi-team meet since a 197.150-196.025 loss Feb. 8 at Kentucky, a meet that represented the low point of its season. But the Tigers were hardly in a mood to be upset about the result.
“Like we said in our circle, now that the hard part is over we get to go out and leave it all on the floor tomorrow,” Edney said. “No regrets, no pressure on us. We’ve just got to go and leave it out there.”
LSU has finished second, second and fourth the past three years in the NCAA final.
“(Saturday) is a clean slate,” Finnegan said. “Every person on floor starts from zero. Today we got the nerves out of our system and we’ll be ready to go.”