FORT WORTH, Texas — Two brilliant rotations, led by an NCAA title-worthy vault performance from freshman Haleigh Bryant, had LSU on the cusp of a fifth straight trip to the NCAA gymnastics final Friday evening.
But as has often happened this season, the Tigers ultimately couldn’t pull off the scores they needed for the big win.
The Tigers led Semifinal II of the NCAA Championships midway through and were solidly in second place going into their final rotation, up three-tenths of a point on Utah. But a hard fall on uneven bars by anchor Sami Durante left LSU’s gymnasts shaken and distracted heading to their final rotation on balance beam. There, the Tigers counted two sub-9.80 scores that dropped LSU into fourth place with a score of 197.5625. LSU finished sixth overall among the eight teams competing in the two semifinals at Dickies Arena.
“Obviously, this stings,” said Kiya Johnson, LSU’s sophomore All-American. “This isn’t how we wanted our season to end. We tried our best. We fought to the end. I’m just grateful we were able to get this far after having last year taken away.”
LSU advanced to the previous four national finals that were contested from 2016-19. The 2020 NCAA Championships were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The top two teams from LSU’s semifinal, Oklahoma (198.0875) and Utah (197.600), transferred into Saturday’s final. Alabama, which nipped LSU by one-tenth of a point in March to win the Southeastern Conference championship meet, was third at 197.575.
The Tigers’ frustration was aggravated by the fact their score would have advanced from Semifinal I. Michigan won that session with a 197.8625, while SEC regular-season champion Florida advanced with a 197.4375.
“I know the outcome is negative,” said Jay Clark, in his first year as LSU’s solo head coach after longtime coach D-D Breaux retired last year. “We finished sixth in the country. It’s certainly less than we wanted, but I don’t want to get down on the kids. I want them to feel it and own it and wear it, but not blame themselves.”
The Tigers started the meet on floor and led after the first rotation. LSU averaged a 9.90 with all six gymnasts for a 49.500, tossing out a 9.875 by Bryant and paced by a 9.9125 from Johnson.
LSU maintained its lead midway through the meet with a 49.5125 on vault, getting a serious closing kick from its two all-arounders. Johnson scored a 9.95, then Bryant nailed her front handspring, front pike half routine for a 9.975 in the anchor position.
Oklahoma senior Anastasia Webb, who won the all-round title and also tied for first on floor, matched Bryant in the final rotation. It is the 16th NCAA individual title for LSU and seventh on vault. Bryant joins former LSU champions Susan Jackson (2008), Ashleigh Clare-Kearney (2009), Rheagan Courville (2013 and 2014) and Kennedi Edney (2017 and 2019).
“It’s definitely an honor,” Bryant said. “In the back of my head I wanted to win at nationals, though we focused on wanting to win a national championship as a team.
“I just wanted to do what I needed to do for the team. Tying Anastasia is amazing. I got a little wonky on the landing, but everything else was good.”
The Tigers had a solid run going on uneven bars with a 49.375 from their first five gymnasts, led by 9.90s from Alyona Shchennikova and Olivia Dunne. Then Durante missed her grip and smashed her elbow on the lower beam. She lay on the mat for a long moment before getting up to finish her routine, but she only scored a 9.25, which LSU discarded.
“She’s hurting pretty bad,” Clark said of Durante, “coupled with the emotional hurt.
“She did a pak salto, and on her second release from the high to the low bar one hand slipped as she slid down the bar, caught her elbow and smashed it pretty hard. I didn’t think she could finish, but she did. She got to beam and wanted to try, but she couldn’t put any weight on (her elbow).”
Johnson said Durante’s fall affected the team.
“Sami doesn’t normally fall on bars,” Johnson said. “It was scary and it rattled some people. I thought we got back in the zone, but I’m not sure.”
Bryant replaced Durante in the second spot on beam and gave the Tigers their best score, a 9.925 that helped her tie for fifth in the all-around with a 39.625. But Christina Desiderio led off with a large balance check for a 9.725. Shchennikova later stumbled and stayed on beam for a 9.4375 that LSU threw out.
LSU still could have advanced with a 9.8125 in the anchor spot from Reagan Campbell, but she got a 9.775 with a routine that Clark said had several breaks throughout. Meanwhile, Utah charged from behind with a season-high 49.5125 on bars to LSU’s 49.175 on beam.
The NCAA final is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday and will be televised for the first time on ABC.
Semifinal II scores
1. Oklahoma 198.0875 (Vault — 49.525, Bars — 49.400, Beam — 49.525, Floor — 49.6375
2. Utah 197.600 (Vault — 49.2375, Bars — 49.5125, Beam — 49.250, Floor — 49.600)
3. Alabama 197.575 (Vault — 49.2875, Bars — 49.3125, Beam — 49.3875, Floor — 49.5875)
4. LSU 197.5625 (Vault — 49.5125, Bars — 49.375, Beam — 49.175, Floor — 49.500)
Individual (includes first place and all LSU competitors)
All-around — 1. Luisa Blanco, Alabama, 39.800; 2. Kiya Johnson, LSU, 39.625; 7. Haleigh Bryant, LSU, 39.450.
Vault — T1. Haleigh Bryant, Elena Arenas, LSU, Luisa Blanco, Alabama, 9.95; T4. Alyona Shchennikova, LSU, 9.925; T7. Sami Durante, Sarah Edwards, LSU, 9.90; T15. Kiya Johnson, LSU, 9.85.
Bars — 1. Maile O’Keefe, Utah, 9.95; T5. Olivia Dunne, Alyona Shchennikova, LSU, 9.90; T12. Chase Brock, LSU, 9.875; T17. Kiya Johnson, Haleigh Bryant, LSU, 9.85; 27. Sami Durante, LSU, 9.25.
Beam — 1. Luisa Blanco, Alabama, 9.9625; T4. Haleigh Bryant, LSU, 9.925; T8. Kiya Johnson, LSU, 9.8875; T14. Bridget Dean, LSU, 9.8625. 23. Reagan Campbell, LSU, 9.775; 25. Christina Desiderio, LSU, 9.725; 26. Alyona Shchennikova, LSU, 9.4375.
Floor — T1. Anastasia Webb, Oklahoma, Lexi Graber, Alabama, Maile O’Keefe, Utah, 9.9625; T9. Kiya Johnson, LSU, 9.9125; T13. Sarah Edwards, Christina Desiderio, Sierra Ballard, LSU, 9.90; T19. Alyona Shchennikova, LSU, 9.8875; T24. Haleigh Bryant, LSU, 9.875.
All-around — Anastasia Webb, Oklahoma, 39.7875
Vault — Haleigh Bryant, LSU, Anastasia Webb, Oklahoma, 9.975
Bars — Maya Bordas, California, Maile O’Keefe, Utah, 9.95
Beam — Luisa Blanco, Alabama, 9.9625
Floor — Anastasia Webb, Oklahoma, Lexi Graber, Alabama, Maile O’Keefe, Utah, 9.9625