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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn with season-high score, two perfect 10s in Alabama loss

Sunisa Lee vs Arkansas at Neville Arena 1/20/23
Sunisa Lee vs Arkansas at Neville Arena 1/20/23

Not even a pair of perfect 10s from Suni Lee and a season-high score could end Auburn’s streak of futility in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as a late surge by Alabama over the final two rotations lifted the Crimson Tide to victory.

The streak remains: no Auburn gymnastics team has ever defeated Alabama in Coleman Coliseum. No Auburn team, however, came as close as the Tigers did on Friday night, being edged by the Tide 197.850 to 197.700 in a meet that came down to the final routine.

"I told the girls I'm really proud of them," said head coach Jeff Graba. "I think you've got to be a 198 team to win the national championship. Clean some things up and just keep going."

The Tigers’ 197.700 was the third-best road score in program history, only behind a pair of 197.750s that Auburn achieved last season.

"That's definitely something to be proud of," said senior Cassie Stevens. "We wanted it, we really did. I think you could see that fight in us. We held it together, we fought, we had each other's backs. We had a lot of good things tonight I think we can take forward with us. Still things to improve on, but overall it was a success."

Despite her team’s loss, Lee was the all-around champion for the third time in five meets. Lee scored a pair of perfect 10s, first on the uneven bars and later on the balance beam. The 10s were her second and third of the season, and brought her career total to eight. Lee’s all-around total of 39.825 was the best by an Auburn gymnast this season.

"It means a lot, especially here at Alabama," Lee said. "We obviously wanted to win. It felt really good because I feel like the past few weeks I haven't been at my best, so to come out here and do two 10s is a great feeling."

As is customary on the road, No. 6 Auburn began the meet on the uneven bars. Lee’s perfect 10 led the Tigers as they scored a 49.400 in the rotation, equaling their best bars score of the season. Lee’s 10 on the event beat her own team-high score of 9.975, set against Arkansas on Jan. 20. 

Stevens built upon her all-around title last week, scoring a 9.9 on the bars. No. 11 Alabama’s score of 49.175 on the vault placed the Tigers ahead by .225 after one rotation.

In the second rotation, as Auburn moved to the vault, Lee again paced the team, scoring a 9.9 on her routine. Auburn did not count a score below a 9.850 in the rotation, scoring a 49.325 to maintain its lead over the Crimson Tide, who equalled that score on the bars.

Auburn moved to the floor, an event in which the Tigers ranked fifth nationally, for the third rotation. The duo of Lee and Derrian Gobourne led the Tigers, scoring 9.925 as the final two in the lineup. Again, Auburn did not count a score below a 9.850 and scored a 49.475 as a team.

Despite Auburn’s solid score, Alabama began to mount its comeback during its beam rotation. The Crimson Tide scored a 49.650, led by a 10 from Luisa Blanco, significantly cutting into Auburn’s lead. The lead stood at just a half-tenth going into the final rotation.

Auburn concluded the meet on the balance beam. Lee, as she did in every rotation, led the team with a second perfect 10 in the meet. 

As Alabama continued to come back, every performance became a pressure routine. Auburn counted three scores of 9.9 or higher and did not count a score below a 9.8 as the Tigers attempted to hang onto their lead. Their beam score was a 49.500, the best score of the season for the nation’s sixth-ranked beam team.

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"We had quite a few people step up and continue to push," Graba said.

But as Auburn performed on the balance beam, Alabama continued to make up ground on the floor. Despite ranking 17th nationally in the event, statistically Alabama’s worst, the Crimson Tide were given a 49.700 during the final rotation — the best floor score by any NCAA gymnastics team this season.

The two floor judges gave four Alabama gymnasts scores that equaled or surpassed Lee and Gobourne’s Auburn-high 9.925s and Alabama did not count a score below a 9.9 in the rotation. 

With Auburn hanging onto a lead of .025, Blanco closed out the meet with a 9.975, giving Alabama the 197.850 to 197.700 win.

Auburn’s score of 197.700 was its 20th straight above the benchmark of 197. Auburn will attempt to build off the accomplishment of its road score in the coming meets, beginning next week, when Auburn returns home to host No. 9 LSU on Friday, Feb. 10. The meet will begin at 7:30 p.m. CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.

"We know exactly what we need to work on going to the gym," Lee said. "Work even harder, be even better. It's going to be a great competition."

Matthew Wallace | Assistant Sports Editor

Matthew is a senior from Huntsville, Alabama, majoring in journalism. He started with The Plainsman in fall 2021.

Twitter: @mattwallaceAU

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