The LSU gymnastics team’s bus ride from Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, was silent save for a few sobs.
The gymnasts’ eyes widened at first after the Tigers completed their balance beam rotation, their last of the day. Their tears began to flow in earnest when they realized the event would also be the last of their season, which ended Thursday afternoon in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament.
After two rotations, the Tigers took a considerable lead and seemed to move easily into the next round. But they gave it their all with three falls in the last two events – by Haleigh Bryant, Christina Desiderio and Aleah Finnegan.
The Tigers finished the day with a season-low 196.575, finishing third behind Missouri’s 197.150 and Iowa’s 196.900. The encounter was a fitting end to LSU’s roller-coaster 2022 season: The Tigers showed a fleeting glimpse of their potential, followed by a rapid series of confusing errors.
LSU’s season had too many twists and turns to count. It ended in Raleigh, North Carolina much earlier than expected.
“We are all hurt, devastated and disappointed,” LSU coach Jay Clark said. “I just hurt for the kids. It hurts for all of us. For it to end this way is as disappointing a moment in my 32-year career as I can remember.
LSU opened the competition with a solid 49.500 on the ground and a comfortable lead over second-place Missouri. KJ Johnson, Finnegan and Olivia Dunne scored three straight 9.90s, and Kiya Johnson topped the event with a 9.95. The Tigers dropped Alyona Shchennikova’s score of 9.80, her second-lowest score of the season.
Shchennikova rebounded in the second rotation with a season-high 9.90 on vault. Kiya Johnson and Bryant capped the event with a pair of 9.95s, and LSU’s score of 49.475 widened their lead over Iowa, which found itself battling with Missouri for second place.
That’s when things fell apart for LSU.
On the uneven bars, Elena Arenas notched a score of 9.70. The judges then penalized Bryant with a 9.05 after the sophomore star snorted on a high bar hold and planted his face on the mat. Sami Durante anchored the formation, and after her toe scraped the ground during her routine, she scored a 9.65, forcing LSU to count her and Arenas’ scores.
Clark then appeared in front of a camera for an interview with the broadcast team of the meeting. He put on a helmet, gave a nervous smile and looked at the ground. LSU, Missouri and Iowa were tight with a rotation to go, and his team’s lead for third place had shrunk to just three-tenths of a point. Clark seemed calm.
But the pressure was too great for his team.
“These are mental errors,” Clark said. “It’s not physical mistakes, trying to have the right mentality.”
Desiderio wobbled and fell off the balance beam in the front row. Kai Rivers, Bridget Dean and Shchennikova followed with solid scores, a 9.80 and a pair of 9.875. But then Finnegan landed off balance on the second of his two rear antennae, waved his arms and fell off the beam. The judges slapped her with a 9.10, forcing LSU to count Desiderio’s 9.30 and knocking the Tigers out of action.
“The mistakes we saw today, just like in the SEC, are not things we see in the gym,” Clark said. “I told them at the end, ‘I feel like I let you down.’ ”
The meet was the third straight postseason meet in which LSU has had a disappointing performance, dating back to last season’s early departure from the NCAA Championship tie following a similar semifinal slump. Missouri, which had a significantly lower season NQS score than LSU, has beaten the Baton Rouge Tigers three times this season, once in the regular season, once in the SEC meet and once in the meet NCAA.
Bryant was limited to two events Thursday because she was battling a difficult case of norovirus, a stomach bug. Clark said she was “weak and disoriented” during warm-ups after throwing up throughout the week. Others had cases too, but not to the extent of Bryant.
But Clark was quick to take the blame with no excuses.
“Look, I’m not going to say anything bad about these kids, and I have to be able to prepare them, and when they feel weak, I have to help them feel strong,” he said. “It’s on me.
“We’ll find out. We’ll come back and we’re not going anywhere.