Can LSU win its first NCAA championship this year?

Can LSU win its first NCAA championship this year?

طوبیٰ Tooba 3 months ago 0 6

Haleigh Bryant knew LSU was poised for a special — and maybe even historic — season long before competition even began.

It was early September, and the team was on a weekend retreat — or a “team advance” as the Tigers call it — in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The trip was a chance for the team to relax and have fun before the grind of the school year and the season, and to build trust and relationships. For Bryant, it did that and more.

“We talked about literally everything and we just got so close in those moments,” Bryant, a senior, told ESPN. “We got really vulnerable with each other. We talked about hardships, past experiences, everything. And we realized we all want the exact same thing, every single person on this team, and it was just such a motivating thing to hear that. It was an incredible starting point and I knew we were only going to go up from there.”

The 2024 season has been nothing short of spectacular so far for the Tigers, who averaged the highest attendance in NCAA gymnastics, at 12,590, during their six home meets. After spending most of the year ranked within the top three in the nation and setting a new team high score of 198.475 in February, LSU won its fifth SEC championship title last month. Five gymnasts — including all-around and vault champion Bryant — won at least a share of an event title. Then, earlier this month, the team won the NCAA regional championship in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to advance to the NCAA semifinals in Fort Worth, Texas.

On Thursday, in the first semifinal session (4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2), the Tigers will look to get one step closer to what they’ve been singularly working towards since that weekend in September: The program’s first national title.

“Every time we go into the gym, we obviously have our main goal of winning a national championship in the back of our mind,” Bryant said. “So we go in every single day and just try to get 1% better. Because if we get 1% better, that’s 1% closer to our main goal at the end. … We’ve been so motivated all year and we’re so determined to achieve that one end goal.”

LSU has come close to that goal before — and even been the runner-up on four occasions. But the Tigers have never been that last team standing, the one immortalized in images and videos as confetti streams down from the arena’s rafters.

This year, LSU has one of the deepest and most talented teams in the country and has been considered a favorite for the title since the start of the season. The results — a 25-3 overall record, an undefeated season at home and the second highest national qualifying score (396.465) in the country — have only further fueled that belief.

Perhaps no other gymnast in the country has gotten the attention that Bryant has, and for good reason. The 22-year-old became the school’s all-time leader in perfect 10.0 scores during her junior season, and recorded the score eight more times — at least once on every event — in 2024, for a total of 18. She ended the regular season as the nation’s top-ranked all-arounder, and tied for first on vault.



LSU celebrates McClain’s Perfect 10 as well as SEC title

Freshman Konnor McClain’s flawless routine on the balance beam ranked as one of the highlights of a huge night for the Tigers at the SEC championship.

But LSU is far more than Bryant, and she is quick to bring any conversation about her own achievements back to the team. There’s fifth-year senior Kiya Johnson, who returned from a season-ending Achilles injury in 2023 to claim part of the SEC floor title last month. Freshman phenom and 2022 U.S. national all-around champion Konnor McClain has lived up to the hype with perfect-scoring performances on bars and beam with the SEC title on the latter. KJ Johnson (floor) and Ashley Cowan (bars) won SEC titles. Junior Aleah Finnegan has earned a perfect score on floor three times, and has been the squad’s anchor on beam.

And then there’s graduate student Savannah Schoenherr, who transferred from Florida and made an immediate impact on vault and bars, freshman Amari Drayton, who has earned scores of 9.925 or better six times this season on vault and floor and social media and NIL superstar Olivia Dunne, who has become a constant in the team’s floor lineup this season. The list goes on and on.

In fact, the team’s staggering amount of depth has been the biggest obstacle this season for head coach Jay Clark. With just six gymnasts competing on each event, and with gymnasts like Bryant, Johnson and now Finnegan frequently doing all four, it’s become hard for gymnasts — even those capable of high scores — to merely crack the lineup in any given week.



Finnegan scores first Perfect 10 of season vs. Auburn

Aleah Finnegan scores her third career Perfect 10 on floor as LSU beats Auburn, 198.300-197.100, and improves to 6-2.

“We knew it was going to be difficult because they all want to compete and they all want to contribute to what we’re doing,” Clark, the 2024 SEC Coach of the Year, told ESPN. “So getting everyone on that page and getting them to embrace whatever role they find themselves in was the greatest challenge for us this year. We’ve really tried to celebrate a lot of the little things that aren’t necessarily in a score sheet on a weekly basis. We point out the achievements and the contributions that each individual makes weekly in our team meeting and make sure that everybody knows how valuable they are to the process and to the progress that we’re making.”

Clark knows some gymnasts have been disappointed and has tried to ensure those individuals have a chance to express their emotions or frustration while not bringing negativity to the gym. He tries to avoid emphasis on individual awards or accolades and instead focus on the achievements and objectives of the team overall. It’s a balancing act — one he admits he hasn’t fully perfected. But according to Kiya Johnson, everyone on the team can see the bigger picture.

“I think everyone knows that even if you’re not in a lineup, you’re contributing to the success that we have as a group on Friday nights, because at the end of the day, you’re pushing the people to be better who are in the lineup,” Johnson told ESPN. “I really feel the team 100% thinks that. Everyone is working just as hard because you never know when your name will get called and you’ll have to step up. And even if it never does, I think everyone has the same level of happiness whenever we do accomplish the big goals that we set out as a team because we know that we’re all working for it together every single day and everyone is important.”

Johnson said this is the most connected and supportive team she’s been on in her five years at the school. She said she “can’t quite explain” why, but it’s just a “deeper level” of respect, trust and wanting to be around one another. “We’re each other’s biggest cheerleaders in and out of the gym,” she said.

Like Bryant, she also believes the weekend retreat in Gulf Shores set everything in motion. She was paired with junior Tori Tatum for an exercise on the beach in September, and they shared what they each thought they’d need throughout the season. Johnson, coming off her devastating injury, didn’t want to set too many expectations for herself and wanted to give herself grace and time for self-care. Tatum has continued to check in about all of those things on at least a weekly basis with texts and conversations before and after practice.

“It’s been invaluable,” Johnson said.

No matter how close the team is, or how much they want it, winning in Fort Worth won’t be easy.

First the Tigers will have to finish in the top two in Thursday’s semifinal against No. 3 California, No. 7 Arkansas and No. 8 Stanford in order to advance. In a postseason already full of surprises and upsets, that could be easier said than done.

If they do, they will likely face Oklahoma among the final four teams Saturday. The undefeated Sooners are two-time defending champions and have been the top-ranked team all season long. While LSU is among the favorites, Oklahoma is undeniably the favorite to hoist the trophy, yet again.

But LSU arrives in Texas brimming with confidence in a way the team hasn’t always in previous years. For Clark, winning the SEC championship was another important goal for the team this season, and one he emphasized early on. In addition to the bragging rights in the sports-wild conference and among its fanatical fans, he knew it would prove to his team just how good they were.

With four SEC teams making the final eight to nationals — Florida and Alabama will compete in the second semifinal session (9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) on Thursday — LSU’s conference title was made all the more impressive.



LSU senior Haleigh Bryant goes near perfect on vault

Haleigh Bryant continues to shine as LSU’s anchor with a 9.95 on vault vs. Alabama.

Despite an illness that forced several LSU gymnasts to miss some practices following SECs, Bryant said she could feel a difference among her teammates after the win and it only strengthened their focus on what was first written down all those months ago at the team retreat in Gulf Shores.

“Every team’s goal is probably to win a national championship, but I feel like there’s just something different about this team,” Bryant, who will decide if she will return for a fifth year after the season, said. “When you’re having a hard day, it’s the goal of bringing a national championship back to a program that’s never won a national championship before that makes you excited and it gets you fired up. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to try to accomplish that goal that we have.”

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