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UNC gymnastics displays strong mentality Clemson meet despite season lows

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UNC junior Julia Knower celebrates with her team after her floor routine at Carmichael Arena on Friday Jan. 26, 2024. UNC lost to Clemson 194.125 to 196.550

Despite several lineup changes, UNC Gymnastics head coach Danna Durante thought the gymnasts she chose to compete against Clemson were well prepared.

However, North Carolina went without injured junior Lali Dekanoidze and sophomore Paige Prejean for its first event — vault — on Friday. UNC tied its season low on vault and set a new season low on bars, marked by three falls in the latter event sinking the Tar Heels’ score.

“Injury is a part of sport, right?” Durante said. “So are you prepared when that opportunity comes up? I think there were some that showed that they were prepared tonight. I think there were some that struggled with that.”

Durante said she doesn’t know if things were off because of the lineup changes. The team will analyze what went wrong on Sunday. There is one lesson, as put by junior Julia Knower, UNC can take after its defeat to Clemson: the physical prowess is there. It’s all about the mentality.

The last time UNC had an event score as low as its 47.675 mark on bars was in its first meet of the season, where it notched a 47.625 on floor. Then, injuries forced UNC into a five-gymnast lineup for the event instead of its usual six.

Durante said there was no panic then, because the team had little depth. But now, with its depth back — and even without Dekanoidze, who holds the program’s bars record — Durante’s message has changed.

“Mentality is a huge part of it, right?” Durante said. “Physically, they're well prepared. They're strong. I think we need to be able to make, be very comfortable with adjustments in the lineup.”

How can North Carolina bring a stronger mentality to the rest of the season? Well, Friday’s loss reveals examples the Tar Heels can be proud of.

The bars title didn’t go to a Tiger on Friday. It went to junior Isabelle Schaefer, who tied her career high on bars with a 9.925. That routine came right after three Tar Heels had committed errors.

This was no surprise to Durante. From practice to meet day, Schaefer’s mentality is consistent. Even though the team struggled and the lineup changed, Schaefer didn’t.

Knower was also unfazed by the team’s struggles. Injuries, she said, push her to step up even more. Her message as she spoke with the gymnasts in the floor lineup reflected her conviction.

“I was like, ‘I don't know about y'all, but I'm pretty fired up right now,’” Knower said.

The Tar Heels made up for their season lows with their highest floor score of the season, led by Knower’s mark of 9.900. Perhaps the mentality shift the Tar Heels need for its next meet is best captured by the cases of junior Taylor Schulze and sophomore Gwen Fink.

Schulze’s warm up for the floor rotation convinced the coaches to stick her in the event lineup over junior Bella Miller, despite the fact she had not done a floor routine all season until Friday. She notched a 9.825, the third highest mark on the team. Unfazed.

Fink, meanwhile, had committed errors in her last two events: bars and beams. So Knower spoke with her one-on-one. She told her to leave the past mistakes behind. The team had her back no matter what happened on the floor, so leave it all on the floor.

Fink answered with a career-high score of 9.875 on her floor routine.

“When there is a mistake or something that doesn't go quite right, can you leave that behind you?” Durante said. “Can you not carry that over?”

If Friday is any indication, the answer to Durante’s question was yes — for one event.

The answer she’s looking for? Yes, in all four events.

@dmtwumasi

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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