The Florida gymnastics team poses with its third-place trophies after the NCAA championship. Oklahoma won its second straight title, while LSU finished second.
Gators place third behind Oklahoma, LSU at NCAAs
ST. LOUIS — On the floor of the Chaifetz Arena, the Florida gymnasts played with confetti, rocked air guitars to “Don't Stop Believing” and posed for numerous pictures with their trophy.
And they finished third.
It was all smiles for the Gators even after they were edged out at the buzzer for second place at the NCAA Championships.
“We're actually doing pretty well,” said Florida junior Alex McMurtry. “We've come a long way this season and we're looking forward to next season.
“We're all smiling. We're crying happy tears.”
Florida wasn't expected to have much of a shot at winning Saturday night because of the season-long dominance of Oklahoma and the NCAA record score that came from LSU on Friday night.
But the Gators hung in there and improved on last year's fourth-place showing.
The better news? Florida should have a better team in 2018.
That's why they were celebrating even without a championship.
“We see so many teams losing a whole bunch of seniors,” McMurtry said. “We only lose Claire (Boyce). We're going to come to nationals and take first next year.”
On her final event of a momentous NCAA Championships, McMurtry recorded a 10 on the uneven parallel bars.
But even that wasn't enough to get in the way of an Oklahoma machine.
The top-ranked Sooners showed why they have been ranked there for all but one week of this season, setting the all-time record at the NCAAs with a score of 198.3875.
It was more than a point better than the previous record, which was set a little more than 24 hours earlier by LSU in the semifinals.
Florida finished with a score of 197.70, closing with its best score of the night on the bars with a 49.537.
“This team did a tremendous job of fighting,” said UF coach Jenny Rowland. “Extremely proud. We had some early mistakes but we kept coming back like we have all year. Our freshmen gained a lot of experience this year.”
Her mantra for the Saturday finals was to “have fun” and she reiterated that before the bars, UF's final event of the night.
“They did have a lot of fun and that's really hard to do in this environment,” Rowland said.
But by the time the championships reached the final rotation of the night, the only real question was who would finish second. Oklahoma was that good.
“They deserved it,” said McMurtry. “They are an incredible team. They could have counted a fall and still won this competition.”
The Gators looked like it would be them in the runner-up spot until LSU finished with a 9.95 on the beam by Ashleigh Gnat and edged Florida out by .0375.
The third-place finish was an improvement on last year's fourth place, but some early errors in a sport where fractions count were too much for Florida to overcome.
The Gators started the final night of their season on the balance beam, the same way they started it in Fort Worth in 2015 when they won their third straight national title.
Despite a fall from freshman Rachel Gowey, the Gators finished off a strong performance with a 49.3 score. Friday night's hero — national champion McMurtry — had UF's best score in the event with a 9.9125.
With the Gators on a bye, Oklahoma took control of the meet with an NCAA Championships record of 49.587 on the bars.
If that wasn't enough, the Sooners got the meet's first 10 when Maggie Nichols recorded the score on the balance beam. Even though Florida's score on the floor at the same time was slightly better than the night's before (at 49.5) and the Gators were in second halfway through the meet, they found themselves trailing Oklahoma by .487. In football terms, that's like being behind by 28 at halftime in football.
McMurtry recorded a 9.9375 to be the top Gator on the vault, but Florida's score of 49.362 was almost three-quarters of a point lower than the night before. The score was hurt when usually-reliable Alicia Boren missed her landing and had a 9.65.
Still, Florida had the lead through three events although neither Oklahoma or UCLA had competed in its third event.
UCLA's Peng-Peng Lee had the second 10 of the night on the beam.
Earlier, Alabama basically eliminated itself on the beam with two falls and — as a result — had to count a score of 9.225. The Tide finished sixth.
UCLA was fourth and Utah fifth.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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