Olympic champion Auburn is now NCAA champion and the Tigers had the chance to join her.
Suni Lee won the national individual beam title on Thursday night and helped Auburn advance to the national team finals in Round 2 of the national semifinals in Fort Worth, Texas. Auburn scored a 197.8375 to finish in the top two of the session and earn a ticket to the last four for the first time in program history.
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The Tigers finished behind Florida (197.9750) but ahead of defending national champion Michigan (197.2000) and Missouri (196.2875). Auburn and Florida will join Oklahoma and Utah in the final on Saturday. The Sooners and Utes advanced in the first session Thursday, with Oklahoma finishing at 198.1125 and Utah at 197.7125.
“Really excited to finally accomplish what they set out to accomplish months ago,” Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. “We felt capable of that. I’m really proud of the group. We talked a lot about how much fight it was going to take to pass.
Auburn’s place in the Finals was secured with the team’s third-best total in program history — which happened to be the Tigers’ third-best team total of the season. Auburn opened on beam with a 49.475 behind Lee’s 9.9650, which was enough for the rookie and Olympic all-around gold medalist to win the national individual apparatus title. The Tigers’ score on beam puts them second, behind Michigan, after one rotation.
“The last two meets I struggled on beam, so coming back and restoring that confidence means a lot,” Lee said. “The team makes everything so much better because it’s so memorable, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Auburn took the lead midway through the session, overcoming an out-of-bounds misstep from Drew Watson on the ground. The Tigers managed to knock down Watson’s 9.650 thanks to four straight routines from Cassie Stevens (9.9000), Sophia Groth (9.9000), Lee (9.9500) and Derrian Gobourne (9.9625) to finish with a 49.5750 on the ground. That puts them at 99.0500 halfway through the competition and atop the four-team standings.
Auburn held onto that lead through the third rotation on the team’s best overall jump performance of the year, clocking a 49.3500 on that apparatus. Watson atoned for his floor misstep, scoring a 9.9250 on the vault to lead Auburn in the event.
“Drew stepped up so many times,” Gobourne said. “She’s great at what she does.”
The first three rotations helped position Auburn for a berth in the Finals as the Tigers completed the bars session. Gobourne set the standard for Auburn on bars, scoring a 9.9500. Lee posted a 9.9125 on bars, which briefly put her atop the individual all-around standings and helped Auburn finish with a 49.4375 in the event. Lee’s barbell routine gave her a total of 39.6750, which put her ahead of fellow Olympic gold medalist Jade Carey (who finished with a 39.6500 while competing as a individual for the State of Oregon). Lee’s place at the top of the all-around standings was short-lived, as Trinity Thomas of Florida won the all-around title (and the floor title) after her perfect 10 on floor pushed her to a total of 39.8125.
Gobourne finished second nationally on floor and bars.
Thomas’ strong finish put him atop the individual standings and put Florida atop the team standings to end the encounter, but Auburn still performed well enough to keep their season going. Next: Saturday’s finals.
“A bit of validation that we’re that good,” Graba said. “We felt capable of that. I’m really proud of the girls. Lots of pride for the program and where we raised this program, and now it’s just excitement. I just can’t wait.
Tom Green is an Auburn Beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.