Alabama has been very solid on the floor this season. With its workmanlike routines relying on powerful tumbling, the Tide entered the night quietly 7th in the country in the event. On Friday, facing a lot of pressure at home, it was the middle of the floor rotation that absolutely shone.
It was a weird night for the Crimson Tide, to be honest. Maybe it was the weather, the early start, or Valentine’s day, but Alabama seemed distractable (if not downright distracted), for much of the evening. The late-arriving crowd surely didn’t help: the Coleman faithful were quite low-energy until halfway through the meet.
Nevertheless, Alabama jumped out to an outstanding lead — Arkansas simply does not have the talent to keep up with the Tide’s athletes. After a solid vault by ‘Bama, and some bleh bar-work by the Hogs, Alabama found itself up by a third of a point with its two strongest rotations upcoming over the next three events: bar and floor. But, in its next rotation, the Tide’s usually-reliable bar routine simply wasn’t there tonight. While 49.225 certainly isn’t anything to scoff at, Alabama posted its second-lowest score of the year in the event. Still, the Hogs couldn’t make much headway after their own sub-49.0 on the vault.
Halfway through the meet, Alabama found itself cruising to an almost certain 197-ish destruction of the Piggies. Alabama was up by almost a full point. And, that was when our old friend, Mr. Beam, reared its head. Ella Burgess leading off for the Tide didn’t need to nail down an all-world performance, but she did need to set the pace. You could say, in a way, she did. She took a fall — and eventually finished with a 9.000. That meant that next five tumblers had zero margin of error and a lot of pressure on their shoulders. For the next four outings, the pressure did not seem to affect them too much. There were lots of balance checks, and plenty of hesitation, but they kept their head down and posted steady if not outstanding scores (and, really, Emily Gaskins was robbed). That set it up for Lexi Graber to bring it home.
But, as we’ve seen a little too often this season, it was the Alabama upperclassmen who blinked first and lost their concentration on the Four-Inch Terror. Graber also fell, and Alabama had to count her 9.30. Combined with another consistent Arkansas effort on floor, where they are 5th in the country, Alabama saw its once-safe 7/10th of a point cushion evaporate into a practical tie — Arkansas was just .05 points behind ‘Bama entering the final rotation — the Floor.
Fortunately for Alabama, the final event would bring home the victory. But, nothing came easy for the Crimson Tide tonight. It began with a frightening moment, as the first competitor, Griffin James, lost it in the air on her first tumbling pass and face-planted into the mat. She did not get up for a long while and was in obvious distress. She was unable to complete her event, and, like beam, Alabama found itself with little-to-no room for error. (James did not seem to be seriously injured by evening’s end, but it was not a good landing.)
That was when the upperclassmen responded to the pressure and wove together their best five performances of the season. Canadian national team member Shallon Olsen led it off with a somewhat-underscored 9.90, finally putting it together as she is capable of. She was followed up with 9.925s by Shea Mahoney, Lexi Graber, and Maddie Desch in the middle of the rotation. Alonca Klopfer wrapped it up the night with a criminally-low 9.85.
The rest was history. Arkansas had a solid beam, including an outstanding individual effort by Elswick. But, solid didn’t cut it on a night that Alabama was posting its season high 49.525 on floor. The Crimson Tide wound up comfortably winning, 196.625-196.100, and claimed its third straight win. Meanwhile, Arkansas’ remarkably-consistent Kennedy Hambrick won her third straight All-Around title (and her fourth of the season).
You would have liked to have seen more consistency on the evening. Not just from the teams, but from the judges. The panels were frankly all over the place, deviating by as much as a quarter-point on the same competitor. But, three weeks ago, the Alabama gymnastics team got a Baton Rouge-sized monkey off its back, and has now won three in a row heading into a nasty road trip against the No. 2 Gators in Gainesville. BTW, those Gators? They crushed Auburn at home last night by a full three points, which is just an unheard-of defenestration at this elite level.
Coach Duckworth has emphasized “transformation” as her theme this year. But, really, for Alabama to have any shot at that one, then consistency must instead be the key. Alabama has been all over the place from one week to the next, from one rotation to the next. To spring the upset, Tide needs to score well on the bars, clean up the vault, and avoid catastrophes on the beam — and then have the upperclassmen capitalize on tonight’s outstanding floor. The last few weeks we have noted how invigorating some of the youth is on the squad. But, you look for veteran leadership. And it eventually shone through on Friday.