In the week and a half since its spectacular arrival at the Raleigh Regional, Missouri gymnastics have had a lot to do.
The first was the finish: The Tigers beat UCLA by 0.025 points over the final contender in the final rotation to advance to the NCAA Semifinals this week.
After that, it was the reality that Missouri would be competing for a national championship.
Missouri advances to the second semifinal at 5 p.m. Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, facing familiar foes in Auburn, Florida and Michigan. MU faced Auburn and Florida in the regular season and Michigan in the regional final.
The top two teams from each of Thursday’s noon and 5 p.m. semifinals — which air on ESPN2 — will advance to Saturday’s four-team national title matchup.
“It definitely took a day or two for the reality to set in,” Missouri redshirt sophomore Helen Hu said of the Tigers advancing to the semifinals. “It was probably the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever experienced.”
This rush was due to Missouri competing as a full team, with freshmen and upperclassmen lined up, making clutch scores.
Previously:Missouri Gymnastics edges out UCLA to advance to NCAA semifinals
Throughout the season, the Tigers scored the points they needed to win or push their opponents. Missouri has scored 197,000 or more six times. This team even set the program record for the highest team score twice with a 197.650 against Florida in February and a 197.675 in a quadruple meet in March.
That included two wins over LSU: the first on Feb. 20 and the second in the second round of the Raleigh Regional. That led to a biting second-place finish in the Raleigh Regional Final.
“Even after the encounter, I was sitting in my hotel,” Hu said. “Like, it really happened.”
The dramas were really so intense. It’s not hyperbole to say the Tigers needed every point to advance.
Going into the floor rotation, Missouri was 0.0425 behind Michigan and UCLA. The Tigers didn’t need to beat both; they just needed to sneak past the Wolverines or Bruins to advance.
Jocelyn Moore did her part in her floor routine earning a regional record 9.950. This set the stage for Amari Celestine.
When Celestine spoke, there was a part of her that was nervous, but it wasn’t enough to stress her out, she said.
“It’s hard for me to be stressed out because it’s something I want to enjoy,” Celestine said. “It’s only a minute and 13 seconds, I can’t spend the whole routine stressing about one little thing or one mistake I might make.”
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Even after taking a misstep on the full layout, she was looking ahead. There was still a chance to impress the judges and score high enough to qualify for the semi-finals.
Celestine never insisted beyond that. More stress would have led to more mistakes, she said.
“It was about trusting my gymnastics and having faith in myself,” Celestine said. “Those are the best jumps I’ve ever done.”
When she finished, Celestine scored a 9.925 to push the Tigers to a slim 0.025 points over a star-studded UCLA team.
“The feeling was surreal. It honestly didn’t feel like real life,” Celestine said. “It was a simulation. It was so weird. It was so exciting. So many emotions were going through me.”
That clinched the Tigers’ second-place finish and propelled them into the NCAA Semifinals for the first time since 2010.
The Tigers’ success in the semi-finals will depend on their consistency, especially after the intense regional final.
However, the team is preparing for this type of season.
“I think this puts Mizzou gymnastics at the highest level ever presented to the NCAA,” said senior Hannah McCrary. “I feel like we’ve shown everyone what we’ve grown in our culture.”
McCrary knew this season was going to be special before it even started, she said.
At the Black and Gold premiere in December, she had never felt so excited to embark on a season, she said. McCrary saw the determination to wait for excellence in each other before competitions started to matter, she said.
“That’s what carried us, week after week,” McCrary said. “Knowing that we are capable, even when it doesn’t matter or it’s not as important, and I think that’s very rare.”
It’s one thing to be a competent team, but it’s another thing to have some youth on top of that.
Celestine, Moore and Grace Anne Davis are freshmen for this Tigers team, which means the potential for top results in years to come is certainly on the table. These freshmen have challenged some of the upper classes all season.
“I think the phrase ‘iron sharpens iron’ is important with this team,” McCrary said. “Having freshmen who can keep up with you but can beat you once in a while is one of those things that pushes you and keeps you going.”
Wherever Missouri finishes in the national semifinals, the Tigers could go back next season. MU are ready to fire all their gymnasts next season.
That’s why the goal before national championships is to have fun. The Tigers cast a looming shadow over the rest of the SEC’s talented players and established themselves as a program entering the beginning of its prime.
Come Thursday night, fear of losing won’t stick with Missouri.
“We have nothing to lose,” Celestine said. “We can only win anything and everything.”
Chris Kwiecinski is the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, overseeing sports coverage for the University of Missouri and Boone County. Follow him on Twitter @OchoK_ and contact him at [email protected] or 573-815-1857.