LSU women take home NCAA gymnastics title for first time

FORT WORTH, Texas -- After being the runner-up on four different occasions and a perennial contender for the past several seasons, LSU won its first NCAA gymnastics title Saturday in front of 7,684 fans at Dickies Arena.

The Tigers, who earned the highest score in Thursday's semifinals, led for the first two rotations Saturday but fell .037 points behind Utah ahead of the final event.

But the team closed the deficit, and then some, on beam.

Competing on her only event of the day, senior Sierra Ballard opened the rotation with a career-high 9.95 and, save for a mistake by graduate student Savannah Schoenherr, the Tigers continued to put up clutch routine after clutch routine for a record-setting total event score of 49.7625 -- the highest ever on beam in NCAA championship history.

When Aleah Finnegan, the team's final performer, stuck her dismount, she hugged assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat and began to visibly shake and sob as she and her teammates -- jumping up and down several feet away -- seemed to realize what they had just achieved.

Finnegan earned a 9.95 to give the team a final score of 198.225 and the victory over second-place California (197.8500). After struggling on vault, its last event, Utah fell to third place (197.8000). Florida finished in fourth (197.4375).

LSU coach Jay Clark said he was "speechless" moments later during the ABC broadcast. Fifth-year senior Kiya Johnson, who returned this year after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in 2023, later said she still couldn't fully put her emotions into words.

"I think the only words I said for the first five minutes after Aleah landed was, 'Oh my God, Oh my God,'" Johnson told ESPN.

The numerous Tigers fans in attendance chanted "L-S-U" and stood on their feet in appreciation as soon as Finnegan's routine ended, and they rarely stopped until after the formal presentation. LSU became the eighth team in NCAA history to win the title.

It already had been a surprising championship weekend as Oklahoma, the two-time defending champion and the overwhelming favorite to win it all, was eliminated Thursday during the semifinals.

Clark said Oklahoma's absence in Saturday's final was felt by each team competing.

"Every team was out there fighting for their lives and all four teams, it could have gone any of four ways out there today," he said. "I think as much as I feel for what happened to Oklahoma in the semifinals, I think it made for a championship that became so packed with emotion because every team out there believed they could do it, and it was just tremendous."

At the meet's halfway mark, all four teams were within .288 points of each other. But it seemed to come down to a two-way race with one event to go as Utah surged atop the leaderboard following a high-scoring team performance on floor. However, the Red Rocks opened their final rotation on vault with two misses and were never able to recover.

California, which was making its first appearance at the NCAA championship, ultimately leapfrogged Utah for the runner-up position thanks to three scores of 9.90 or better to end its day on bars.

LSU had spent most of the season ranked in the top three nationally, and several of the Tigers had been open about their desire to win a national title. Senior Haleigh Bryant, who won the individual all-around title Thursday, said that goal had motivated the team all season.

"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," Bryant told ESPN last month.

When asked how it felt to have achieved what they had set out to do since the beginning of the season, Bryant couldn't hide her excitement as she sat in front of a packed room of reporters while wearing her national championship gear.

"This is something I've dreamed about since I committed in the eighth grade to come to this program," she said. "I've known Jay for so long, and I just wanted to be coached under him. And I'm just so excited to bring this national championship back to LSU, and I'm just thankful for all the opportunities I've gotten here, and I really don't have words. I'm just so happy.

"And yes, it lives up to every expectation and exceeds everything."