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Olympic champ Sunisa Lee leads Auburn to NCAA finals

Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee
Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee(Josh Auzenne | WAFB)
Published: Apr. 14, 2022 at 10:13 PM EDT
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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Sunisa Lee delivered in Texas just as easily as she delivered in Tokyo.

The reigning Olympic champion guided Auburn to the team finals at the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships. With the three-time Olympic medalist list leading the way, Auburn finished second to Florida in the second semifinal session on Thursday to earn a trip to the finals for the second time since 1993.

Florida senior Trinity Thomas captured the all-around title — sealing it with a scintillating floor exercise that earned the only perfect 10 of the night — as the Gators posted the top score of 197.9750. Auburn was close behind at 197.8375. Missouri was third in the second semifinal while reigning national champion Michigan’s bid for a repeat ended after a difficult set on uneven bars.

Earlier in the day, Oklahoma reached the finals for the ninth straight time while Utah made it for the fourth time in the last five championships by topping Alabama and Minnesota in the first semifinal.

Lee became the first Olympic all-around champion to compete collegiately when she opted to honor her commitment to Auburn following her triumph in Japan last summer. Her presence has helped fuel a spike in interest in women’s college gymnastics, though that presence came with sky-high expectations.

Tigers coach Jeff Graba said Lee and the other three Olympians — Jade Carey (Oregon State), Grace McCallum (Utah) and Jordan Chiles (UCLA) — carried a heavier burden than most because of their Olympic-medal laden resumes.

Still, Graba downplayed the idea Lee would be affected by pressure.

“I don’t think anybody is better on the planet than Suni about figuring out how to adjust to high expectations,” he said on Wednesday.

Barely 24 hours later, his star proved him right. Lee, wearing a blue-and-white leotard and her smile lighting up Dickie’s Arena, started the night with a 9.9625 on beam, earning her the event title in the process.

Thomas, a former elite, was every bit Lee’s equal. She was near flawless through three events then sealed her all-around title with her 11th perfect 10.0 of the season, by far the most in the country.

A familiar for stands in the way if Florida, Auburn and Utah want to claim a national championship on Saturday in Oklahoma.

The Sooners made a statement in the first semifinal, posting 198.112, the best score of the day. The performance came a day after receiving a pep talk from former Oklahoma star and current Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.

The Sooners chatted with Mayfield — who won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma in 2017 — on Wednesday night, with Mayfield urging them to “feel dangerous” as the program tries to win its fourth title since 2016.

Oklahoma moved in front during the second rotation, using a stellar set on uneven bars to slip by the Utes into first. The set included a 9.887 from Olivia Trautman, competing in the event for the first time this season after being limited by a knee injury.

“(Mayfield) told us to just do our stuff and believe in ourselves,” Trautman said.

Utah reached the finals for the fourth time in five championships by finishing the meet with a rock-solid beam set. The Utes’ score of 49.600 was the highest on the event during the first semifinal, ending any hope of Alabama or Minnesota closing the gap.

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