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LSU at Kentucky Meet Preview

Hold on to your beam caps

LSU gymnast Sierra Ballard wears a black and purple competition leotard with her back to the camera and right leg up holding a crown in her right hand. Stylized text around her reads “Back on the road” and text below her reads “Friday, January 13, 5 PM CT” below which is the ESPN2 logo

LSU opens a two-meet weekend with their first SEC meet of the season.

The #10 Tigers are still on the road, and it’s the first time since 2011 that the team’s opened with two straight road meets. LSU fell 197.275-196.775 to Utah last week, and while a win would’ve been nice, they set a new program record for highest score in an opening meet on the road (smashing the previous mark of 195.725 set at the 2008 Cancun Classic). The Tigers never fell across their 24 routines and scored at least 49.000 in each rotation. The meet begins at 5:00 p.m. on ESPN2. Also, all rankings are based on average scores (for this week, that’s just the scores from each team’s opener)

LSU vs Kentucky history:

LSU is 84-9 against Kentucky in all competitions and 72-8 in the regular season. Kentucky is hosting this meet at Rupp Arena instead of Memorial Coliseum, their usual home venue. The university doesn’t own the venue, but they get to use it for their home opener each year. LSU’s never faced Kentucky in Rupp Arena, but they’re 16-5 in Memorial Coliseum. LSU hasn’t won in Lexington since 2017 and has lost three of the last four dual meets against Kentucky. LSU’s most recent dual meet against Kentucky was last season’s infamous 197.500-197.450 Kentucky win (their second ever at LSU) sealed after the infamous Beam Cap Mishap. Head coach Jay Clark’s mentioned that Memorial Coliseum gives opposing teams a tough time for some reason, so perhaps the Tigers will have a better showing at Rupp.

About Kentucky:

Kentucky came into the preseason ranked #11. The Wildcats finished 10th overall last season, their second top-10 finish since 2000. They had a rough meet at SECs and finished 7th, but they had a good regular season. They lost two key contributors from last year’s team, Cally Nixon, who was good on vault and bars (earned an individual spot to Nationals on bars), and Josie Angeny, who was one of their best on beam. They retained one super senior in Arianna Patterson, a very good vaulter who also does beam and floor, and brought in four freshmen, even though none of them competed at the team’s opener.

There is one person who stands out among Kentucky’s gymnasts just like she did last year: Raena Worley. The senior all-arounder was one of the nation’s most consistent performers last year and qualified for Nationals in the AA (went 39.4875). Kentucky had three individual qualifiers to Nationals last year, and the third was Hailey Davis on floor. She also does bars, but she’s better on floor.

Kentucky’s coming off a 196.575 at the Ohio State Quad Sunday, at which they finished second behind Ohio State and ahead of Arizona and Greenville (a D3 school making their gymnastics debut). Kentucky ranks 15th on vault (49.100), 19th on bars (49.025), 7th on beam (49.175) and 11th on floor (49.275). Beam looked to be their weakest event coming into this year while bars and vault were expected to be their strongest.

Tim Garrison is in his 12th season as head coach, having taken the program to heights never seen before. This team may not be as talented as LSU, but they’re certainly capable of beating them.

About LSU:

LSU comes into this meet ranked 7th on vault, 21st on bars, 12th on beam and 6th on floor. The Tigers had the highest score of any true road team last week, but they need to improve their landings if they want to win. Despite Oklahoma on the horizon, this meet must take precedence as a win gives LSU a 1-0 start in the SEC on the road to a regular-season title and the top seed in Duluth.

Based on the meet notes, it looks like LSU isn’t going to change their lineups from last week, running Kiya Johnson, Haleigh Bryant and Aleah Finnegan in the all-around (not Alyona Shchennikova, as I said last preview). Kiya will lead off bars, expected to be followed Elena Arenas, Alexis Jeffrey, Aleah, Alyona and Haleigh. Only Alexis and Haleigh scored above 9.800 last week, but hopefully more join them tonight. Elena is expected to lead off vault with one of two 9.95 SV vaults in the lineup, followed by Alyona, Aleah, KJ Johnson (the other 9.95), Kiya and Haleigh. Landings need to improve on vault. Sierra Ballard is expected to lead off floor, followed by Alyona, KJ, Aleah, Haleigh and Kiya (they’ll monitor her Achilles to see if she goes tonight, Elena is the first alternate if she doesn’t). If LSU does as well as they did last week on floor, that would be fine. Finally, Kai Rivers is expected to lead off beam, followed by Bryce Wilson, KJ, Haleigh, Aleah and Kiya. Once again, they’ll need to improve landings and make sure to reduce balance checks. Alyona isn’t expected to do beam yet so she can get more comfortable.

LSU needs to win this meet and get off to a good start in the SEC. If LSU can do just as well at not falling as they did against Utah, they should be fine. LSU already showed they can bounce back from a tough moment like they did after KJ went out of bounds on floor, but they must be able to do it from harder moments (hopefully nobody finds out tonight). Hopefully this meet ends without any controversy or injury.