Second-ranked LSU gymnasts hope to shake off last week’s Florida loss in its Friday night meet at Alabama

LSU sophomore Alyona Shchennikova is tied for third nationally (39.525) in the all-around. Photo by Beau Brune

Just a few days before last Friday’s college gymnastics showdown of No. 1 Florida vs. No. 2 LSU, one of the hottest new faces in the sport talked about how much she enjoyed the dynamic of being on a team.

“Everybody supports you every day,” LSU freshman Haleigh Bryant said. “If you’re having a bad day, you just look at one of your teammates and they’ve got your back.”

Bryant’s teammates and her coaches made sure she didn’t feel like the fall guy after her failure to land her last tumbling pass allowed the Gators to escape with a 198.150 to 198.050 victory in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“We could have won that meet on any of three landings on bars (that Tigers receive score deductions),” LSU coach Jay Clark said. “Honestly, if our first five on floor (exercise) had done what they’d historically done, it wouldn’t have come down to Hailey having that pressure.”

The Gators and the Tigers posted to the No. 1 and 3 best scores respectively and they will surely see each other again in the postseason at the SEC championship meet and beyond.

Now, the still-No. 2 Tigers (4-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) hit the hopefully not-so-icy roads for a Friday night 7:30 date at No. 6 Alabama (4-1 overall, 4-1 SEC) in Coleman Coliseum. The meet will be streamed live on SEC Network+ through WatchESPN.com and the app., will be tape delayed and also aired on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. CT Sunday.

Besides LSU, Alabama also suffered its first loss of the season last weekend, losing at No. 13 Georgia. And like the Tigers, the Crimson Tide had their best score of the season in defeat.

But on the disappointment scale considering the hype of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, it took LSU a few days to shake off a close loss especially the way it ended on Bryant’s unexpected fall.

“Both teams were dialed in fighting hard to win that sucker,” LSU coach Jay Clark. “It was a little deflating when you lose one you know you did really well in. As many positive takeaways as there were, you still want to win.”

LSU had its highest scores of the year in the vault, the uneven parallel bars and the beam. The Tigers finished the night with 13 scores 9.925 or better.

“We proved we’re ranked No. 2 for a reason,” LSU sophomore Kiya Johnson said. “We went into the meet feeling no pressure, technically we were underdogs trying to beat them and I think we showed our best. We showed everybody in the country we’re really good this year.”

LSU is ranked in top four nationally in all events – second in balance beam (49.305) and floor exercise (49.395), third in the uneven parallel bars (49.55) and fourth in the vault (49.270.

Individually, the emergence of sophomore Alyona Shchennikova in the all-around – she’s tied for third nationally (39.525) – gives the Tigers a one-two punch when paired with Bryant’s all-around skills.

Shchennikova was selected as the Southeastern Conference Specialist of the Week after matching or setting career highs on all three events vs. Florida. She set a new high on vault with a 9.925 and matched career highs on bars and floor with a 9.95 and 9.925.

Bryant’s mistake in last week’s floor exercise – “My hand slid right when I punched to go into my handspring,” she explained – resulted in a score of 9.425. It dropped her from fourth to No. 9 nationally in the all-around (39.437) and from fourth to a tie for 94th in the floor exercise (9.825).

Yet, she’s raring to go.

“I have to move on from the mistake, whatever happened happened and I’m going into this weekend forgetting about it,” said Bryant, a three-time SEC Freshman of the Week and one-time SEC Gymnast of the Week. “We (the team) go into each week forgetting about the past and not thinking about what we did last week. We just start over every meet.”

Alabama is led by sophomore Luisa Blanco, an All-SEC freshman last season, who is ranked sixth nationally in the all-around (39.500).

A year ago, the then-No. 7 Crimson Tide edged then-No. 6 196.775 to 196.425, breaking LSU’s 35-meet home winning streak in the PMAC that stretched back to 2014. Since beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa for just the third time in school history in 2015, LSU has won 12 of the last 16 meetings.

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