JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — McKenna Kelley took a slow walk past the blue-draped table in a corner of the floor that held the SEC gymnastics championship trophy during warmups, giving it a long look.
A little over two hours later, Kelley made sure that trophy would come home with LSU.
“We weren’t going to give anyone the option to take what was ours,” she said.
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There was drama. There was adversity to overcome. There was Florida, nipping at the Tigers’ bare-footed heels competing in a meet staged an hour from its Gainesville campus.
But in the end, LSU delivered an onslaught of top-notch performances that its rivals and its own couple of wobbles couldn’t touch.
How good were the Tigers? They clinched the title on Kelley’s thunderous 9.95 as the second-to-last competitor on floor for LSU, rendering Ashleigh Gnat’s anchor routine a victory lap as far as the team title was concerned.
LSU roared to a final score of 198.075, a school record in this event that the Tigers’ hadn’t won since they took the first one way back in 1981 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Along the way, LSU set school meet records on vault (49.575), uneven bars (49.450) and balance beam (49.500) and had its second-best score on floor (49.550).
“It’s the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people,” coach D-D Breaux said. “We’ve been close so many times, but this team would not be denied. It’s our rite of passage going into the NCAA championships.”
From the first to the last, starting with Gnat’s perfect 10 on vault and ending with the SEC floor title she and Kelley shared with Florida’s Alex McMurtry and Kennedy Baker, the Tigers were dominant. And they proved, if there were any doubt, that their winning of the inaugural SEC regular-season title was no fluke.
Against SEC competition, LSU hasn’t lost this year: 7-0 in dual meets, 7-0 on Saturday and even finishing ahead of Georgia and Missouri for good measure in the Mardi Gras Invitational in Missouri back in February. Only top-ranked Oklahoma has kept LSU (20-1) from a perfect record.
They’ll have a chance to do something about that in the NCAA championships next month in St. Louis. For now, this title will do just fine.
“Our team has worked so hard,” sophomore Lexie Priessman said. “This team is our best support. We’re not a team; we’re a family.”
The nation’s top-ranked vaulter entering the meet, Gnat opened with a 10, the ninth of her career and her third on vault this season. She had a 10 on floor in the SEC championship meet in 2016.
Freshman Ruby Harrold, who earned All-SEC and All-SEC freshman honors, preceded Gnat with a career-high 9.95 and Myia Hambrick added a 9.90.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Gnat, who competed in front of about 30 family and friends from her home near Orlando. “I’m humbled to be part of this experience.”
The Tigers had some nervous moments midway through their uneven bars routine when Harrold over-rotated and got out of sync, thudding to the mat with a 9.475. But LSU had a 9.90 from Hambrick before her and got an anchoring 9.95 from Priessman, tying her career high. It was the only event of the night for Priessman, who missed LSU’s regular season-ending meet with New Hampshire with a knee injury, but it was good enough for a share of the SEC individual championship.
The drama continued for the Tigers on beam as specialist Erin Macadaeg tumbled off the 4-inch-wide apparatus in the leadoff spot, resulting in a 9.35. But Hambrick and Lafayette senior Sydney Ewing responded with 9.875s before Breaux’s decision in warmups to replace Lauren Li with freshman Kennedi Edney was put to the test.
Edney responded with a 9.90, which Sarah Finnegan equaled. Gnat then anchored with a 9.95 to capture a piece of another SEC individual title.
“We decided to make a change in warmups,” Breaux said. “Kennedi’s been rock solid. “(Assistant coach Jay Clark) calls her a gamer. She’s a beast in competition.”
The Tigers went into their final rotation, on floor, with a slim 148.525-148.300 lead on Florida but were solid throughout, counting nothing lower than a 9.85 from Ewing.
With her mother — Olympic legend Mary Lou Retton — looking on anxiously, Kelley was nearly perfect with her 9.95. Gnat followed with the same score, giving them both a share of that SEC title as well and putting LSU over the magic 198 mark for the second time this season.
“Bugs is great,” Breaux said, calling Gnat by her nickname. “She hit it out of the park on vault, and she crushed it on floor.”
Florida’s McMurtry won the all-around title with a score of 39.700. Finnegan was fourth at 39.525, followed by Hambrick at 39.500.
SEC championship meet results
1. LSU 198.075 (Vault — 49.575, Bars — 49.450, Beam — 49.500, Floor — 49.555)
2. Florida 197.825
3. Alabama 197.400
4. Georgia 196.700
5. Kentucky 196.625
6. Auburn 196.550
7. Missouri 195.825
8. Arkansas 194.900
Individual (includes first place and all LSU competitors)
All-Around — 1. Alex McMurtry, Florida, 39.700; 2. Kennedy Baker, Florida, 39.650; 3. Kiana Winston, Alabama, 39.550; 4. Sarah Finnegan, LSU, 39.525; 5. Myia Hambrick, 39.500; 6. Alicia Boren, Florida, 39.475.
Vault — 1. Ashleigh Gnat, LSU, 10.0; T2. Ruby Harrold, LSU, Rachel Slocum, Florida, Alex McMurtry, Florida, Maddie Desch, Alabama, 9.95; 7. T7. Myia Hambrick, LSU, 9.90; T11. Sarah Finnegan, LSU, 9.875; T14. Sydney Ewing, Kennedi Edney, LSU, 9.85.
Bars — T1. Lexie Priessman, LSU, Katie Bailey, Alabama, 9.95; T3. Myia Hambrick, LSU, 9.90; T10. Shae Zamardi, Kennedi Edney, LSU, 9.875; T17. Sarah Finnegan, 9.850. 43. Ruby Harrold, LSU, 9.475.
Beam — T1. Ashleigh Gnat, LSU, Kiana Winston, Alabama, Alex Hyland, Kentucky, 9.95; T5. Kennedi Edney, Sarah Finnegan, LSU, 9.90; T13. Myia Hambrick, Sydney Ewing, LSU, 9.875; 44. Erin Macadaeg, LSU, 9.350.
Floor — T1. Ashleigh Gnat, McKenna Kelley, LSU, Alex McMurtry, Kennedy Baker, Florida, 9.95; T7. Shae Zamardi, Sarah Finnegan, LSU, 9.90; T10. Sydney Ewing, LSU, 9.85; T20. Myia Hambrick, 9.825.