Tonight’s the night to crown the next set of conference queens.
LSU brought the regular season to a close eight days ago with a 198.025-196.450 win over then-#35 West Virginia on an unforgettable night. None of that matters now. Tonight, LSU is on a neutral podium against three of the best teams in the country, Alabama, Kentucky and Florida, at the 2023 SEC Gymnastics Championship at Gas South Arena in Duluth, Georgia. The Tigers locked up the #2 seed and will begin the evening session on bars. The evening session begins at 7:00 and will be televised on SEC Network, but that telecast goes around the arena during each rotation. If you don’t want to miss a single LSU routine, find the individual event streams on SEC Network+ and rotate with LSU.
2023 Evening Session Teams’ SEC Results since 2017 (2020 championship canceled):
LSU won the SEC Championship three years straight from 2017-19, finished 2nd in 2021 and finished 5th in 2022. Reigning SEC champions Florida finished 2nd to LSU in 2017-19 and 3rd in 2021. Kentucky finished 5th in 2017, 4th in 2018, 7th in 2019, 4th in 2021 and 6th in 2022. Kentucky’s 4th place finishes in 2018 and 2021 are their best finishes at the SEC Championship in program history. Alabama finished 3rd behind LSU and Florida in 2017-19, won the 2021 title and finished 2nd in 2022.
Brief Look at Afternoon Session:
There are four other teams competing in the SEC Championship, and their competition begins at 2:30 p.m. #5 (#12 nationally) Auburn will start on vault. Auburn’s been on a sharp decline recently and are three weeks removed from having been the #2 team in the SEC. Suni Lee has been out of the last two meets and will be out again for SECs. Derrian Gobourne still shines, but the rest of the team has been much less consistent than they were last year and have yet to match their season high of 197.750 set vs LSU over a month ago. #6 (#16 nationally) Arkansas will start on bars. The Razorbacks are a good team, but they haven’t been able to show their greatness since the LSU meet. Norah Flatley has continued to shine as the team’s brightest star, but Arkansas needs to avoid falling apart in a rotation like they have in several meets this year. #7 (#17 nationally) Missouri will start on beam. The other Tigers in the afternoon session have had a decent season in which they’ve shown the same fight they showed last year. They’ve been a bit less consistent on beam, but they’re still the team that capitalizes on others teams’ mistakes. Jocelyn Moore is the team’s biggest star as a vault/bars specialist who got the program’s first 10 since 2004 against Auburn. #8 (#18 nationally) Georgia will start on floor. The GymDogs have shown great improvement over last season, though it’s hard to see how they could’ve done much worse. They’re a growing team starting a rebuild that’s shown way more fight this year than last year and are in the hunt for a national seed. They know this arena well because it’s served as their home the past two meets after concrete began falling from the ceiling at Stegeman Coliseum. Haley De Jong has been their best all-arounder throughout the year.
#4 (#10 nationally) Alabama (start on beam):
Alabama comes in ranked 12th on vault (49.330), 12th on bars (49.375), 8th on beam (49.420) and 10th on floor (49.475).
The Tide have competed twice since LSU’s 197.975-197.925 victory at Coleman Coliseum and have had a rough go. They lost 197.075-196.750 at Missouri on March 3 and beat Boise State on senior night 197.125-194.775, each their lowest scores since January. Despite that, Alabama is a fierce competitor at SECs and rises to the occasion each time. They’re starting on their best event, which could give them a great opportunity to build confidence through the rest of the meet. Their season high is a 198.000 from the Metroplex Challenge in mid-February, a neutral-site podium quad meet, and they’ve only come within 0.150 of that score once in the four meets since in a meet that had wonky scoring on both ends. If Alabama is going to win their second SEC title in three years, they have to find their focus and lock in with good execution.
Alabama has three gymnasts with very good chances at taking home individual titles. Luisa Blanco won the 2021 SEC AA title and can do it again with a lights-out meet. She and Lilly Hudson are also strong competitors on beam, though Blanco is more likely to put up a legitimate 10.0. Makarri Doggette has a good chance to take home the bars title since she’s only gone below 9.900 once this season, and that was in the second meet.
#3 (#8 nationally) Kentucky (start on floor):
Kentucky comes in ranked t-5th with Utah on vault (49.390), t-13th with Georgia and Arizona State on bars (49.350), 11th on beam (49.380) and 12th on floor (49.465).
LSU faced Kentucky in the second meet of the season, and they’ve come into their own since. Four of the top five scores in program history have come this season including their top three, a 197.825 vs Bama, a 197.875 vs Arkansas and a 197.800 last week at Illinois to set a new record for highest away score. That score catapulted them to their highest seed at SECs ever. They had the choice of starting on beam or floor and chose floor. They are a legitimate nationals contender with a shot at the SEC title. Unfortunately, the Wildcats have had terrible luck at SECs. They’ve never finished inside the top 3 and their last appearance in the evening session ended with a 7th place finish. Kentucky’s been consistent all year, they’re one of three teams that’s scored at least 49.000 in every rotation this season alongside Florida and Oklahoma, and that consistency can keep them in contention for their best finish ever. They can’t win SECs if the other teams in this session hit, so their best shot at a title requires Florida, Alabama and LSU to have bad meets while they go lights out.
Kentucky doesn’t have anybody that’s a lock to contend for an SEC title because other teams have more talent. That said, Raena Worley can hit beam and floor, Isabella Magnelli could have a solid beam routine and Arianna Patterson can hit floor, but they have to contend with gymnasts who can score higher more consistently.
#1 (#3 nationally) Florida (start on vault):
Florida comes in ranked 4th on vault (49.405), 2nd on bars (49.585), 4th on beam (49.550) and 5th on floor (49.540).
Florida’s competed three times since their 198.100-197.975 loss at LSU on February 17, a thing that is real and did happen. They beat Kentucky 198.150-197.575 on senior night, lost 197.950-197.700 at Oklahoma in a meet in which they rested gymnasts on floor despite having a legitimate chance at winning, and won a quad meet at Texas Woman’s with a 198.175. Not much has changed about Florida, they’re still a dominant team with a ton of depth and talent that can hit at a moment’s notice. They are the heavy favorites to win their second straight title and it’s theirs to lose. They need to hit each event, that’s all they have to do. If they don’t hit vault, they can still win by absolutely nailing bars, beam and floor because they have the talent to do it. If they are hitting at the same level as the best team in their session, they’ll win the title. If they aren’t, it can slip away.
The Gators have three gymnasts that could own shares or outright titles in all five individual categories. Trinity Thomas is a contender on all four events and is the heavy favorite to win the all-around title for the second year in a row. It would be shocking if she doesn’t win at least one event title in the process, especially floor. Leanne Wong is a favorite on bars and a strong contender on floor, she just needs to hit. Kayla DiCello is another favorite to win the bars title and is a strong contender on beam.
#2 (#6 nationally) LSU (start on bars):
LSU comes in ranked 3rd on vault (49.495), t-8th with Michigan State on bars (49.415), 9th on beam (49.395) and 4th on floor (49.560).
The Tigers are expected to use three all-arounders tonight: Haleigh Bryant, Aleah Finnegan and Alyona Shchennikova. On bars, the probable lineup has Alexis Jeffrey in the lead spot, then either Livvy Dunne or Ashley Cowan, then Tori Tatum, Aleah, Alyona and Haleigh with the alternate being the person not chosen for the second spot. On beam, the probable lineup is Elena Arenas, Alyona, Alexis, Sierra Ballard, Haleigh, Aleah with Bryce Wilson listed as alternate. On floor, the probable lineup is Sierra, Alyona, Chase Brock, Elena, Aleah (waiting for confirmation on how many passes in the routine, will update if I get it), Haleigh with Alexis listed as alternate. On vault, the probable lineup is Elena (9.95 SV), Alyona (10.0 SV), Chase (10.0 SV), Aleah (10.0 SV), Bryce (9.95 SV), Haleigh (10.0 SV) with Tori (10.0 SV) listed as alternate.
The Tigers have battled through adversity all year and have taken the climb message to heart. They have become stronger as a team and as individuals each week. Tonight is their biggest test yet. They failed this test last year after a rough start on bars. If they want to pull off the upset, they can’t let that happen again. They must fight through each rotation and stay strong throughout. They must be on their game at all times, they have to show the unwavering determination that’s defined their season. They pulled off upsets of Florida and Alabama by facing the challenges directly. Haleigh, Aleah and Alyona are the biggest names and they need to hit, but they are not what gives LSU a chance to win this title. Chase has to be on her game like she was at Alabama, Elena has to stay strong the entire night, Alexis and Sierra have to hit when it counts. They are the reason why the Tigers are in this position despite everything that’s happened and they will make the difference in the strength of the team’s performance. They can have a very strong meet and lose if Florida’s on their game. If Florida looks like they did on that mid-February night and LSU looks like they did that night, watch out for something incredible.
LSU’s best chances at individual titles come from Haleigh and Aleah, both strong contenders in the AA. Haleigh is the favorite for the vault title since she’s the best vaulter in the country, but she could make a run at the bars title, too. Aleah is a top contender for the beam and floor titles, but she could win the bars title with a solid routine ending with a stuck Fontaine like the one she did at yesterday’s podium training.
NCAA tournament implications:
This is the last meet that counts toward LSU’s NQS. The #6 Tigers are looking to drop the 197.500 from the Auburn meet and secure a high seed. Their current NQS is 197.780 and they’d be a 2 seed at regionals if nothing changes in the rankings. The only other team that they are battling with for their seed is #7 Cal with a 197.765 NQS who’s looking to drop a 197.525 tonight. LSU’s max NQS is 197.900 achieved with a 198.100+. Cal’s max is 197.915 achieved with a 198.275+. Cal also holds the tiebreaker because their highest score outside of the ones used for NQS is their 197.600 from their home meet vs Arizona State (fifth highest score of their season, fourth highest at home) and LSU’s is their 197.450 from the Oklahoma meet (the seventh highest score of their season). Cal needs a 197.600 to have any chance of taking the 6 seed, and they’ve been very hot recently. They competed at home Friday and Sunday last week and became the first team to score a 198+ twice within 48 hours in regular season history. Cal’s session at Pac-12s starts at the same time as LSU’s session at SECs, so it’s probably best to focus on LSU’s performance at SECs over anything else.