ATHENS, Ga. — LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux noticed a huge difference in her team Saturday from the one that competed in the Southeastern Conference championships two weeks ago.
After a disappointing third-place finish in that meet, No. 3 LSU got back on track Saturday even though the Tigers’ final score in winning the title in the NCAA Athens regional was slightly lower than it was at the conference meet.
The difference: LSU was the intimidator instead of being intimidated, Breaux said, after the Tigers posted a score of 197.300 to qualify for the NCAA championships to be held April 14-15 in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We tried to create our own momentum today,” Breaux said after her team easily secured its fourth regional title in a row and the 15th in program history. “We were the intimidators today. … I thought we were a little intimidated by the bigness of the meet at the SEC championships.”
That certainly wasn’t the case Saturday.
LSU got consistent performances from all 11 athletes who competed, topped by all-around champion Myia Hambrick, and the Tigers coasted to the title.
Host Georgia was second with a score of 196.850 to secure the other spot in the national semifinals. LSU (23-4) and No. 9 Georgia will compete in Semifinal I at 1 p.m. April 15 in the Fort Worth Convention Center.
LSU and Georgia were followed Saturday by Oregon State (196.000), Arizona (195.900), George Washington (195.550) and Michigan State (195.350).
LSU opened the meet on the uneven bars and scored a 49.300 before recording a 49.150 on the balance beam. But that only set up the Tigers for their two best events: floor exercise and vault.
The Tigers, who rank second in the nation on floor, went 49.450 before the country’s top vault team finished with a 49.300.
“The score itself wasn’t better than what we had at the SEC meet (197.500), but the biggest thing was the way we handled ourselves,” said Hambrick, who claimed her sixth all-around title of the season with a 39.550. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was a definite improvement from the SEC meet.”
Hambrick opened with a 9.825 on bars, then improved to 9.90 on beam and 9.95 on floor before finishing with a 9.825 on vault. Her floor score was a career best, topping the 9.90 she recorded four times this season.
Hambrick, a sophomore, tied teammate Ashleigh Gnat for the floor ex crown and finished in a three-way tie for the beam title, while LSU’s Sydney Ewing won the vault with a 9.975 — matching her career high.
“I liked my floor and beam, but I made some uncharacteristic mistakes on the vault and bars,” Hambrick said. “But I’m excited to go back in the gym and correct those things before we go to nationals.”
Gnat started a little slowly with a 9.725 on beam, but the national leader on floor and vault came up with scores of 9.950 and 9.925 in those events to help her team finish off Georgia.
In tying Hambrick on floor, Gnat recorded her 10th title in that event this season. That tied the school’s single-season record held by Lloimincia Hall, Ashleigh Clare-Kearney and Sandra Smith.
Gnat, who was named the Central region gymnast of the year after the meet, said the Tigers seized the opportunity to take any suspense out of the final outcome when they went to the floor and then finished on vault.
“We enjoyed that because the floor and vault are our two best events,” she said. “We had a nice lead, so we were able to let it loose and have a good time.”
Ewing, an All-American on beam as a freshman in 2013, had a 9.825 there and then scored a 9.750 on floor when she had to take a one-tenth deduction for stepping out of bounds.
But she made up for it with her 9.975 on vault just after freshman Julianna Cannamela led off the rotation by producing a career-high 9.90.
“Julianna had an amazing vault,” Ewing said. “That set me up and motivated me because I saw her go down the runway and nail it. We made a few mistakes in each event, which is not like us, but that will only make us better for our next meet. The best meets are coming, so we want to be at our best for those.”
As it was, freshmen Lexie Priessman and Sarah Finnegan had back-to-back 9.90s in the fourth and fifth spots in the lineup on bars, and sophomore Erin Macadaeg started LSU off on beam with a 9.875.
Hambrick then picked up Ewing after the floor mistake with her 9.95, while freshman McKenna Kelley and senior Jessica Savona had 9.90s before Gnat anchored with her 9.95.
“I think that kind of shows the depth this team has,” Breaux said. “We didn’t just get good scores from the bottom of our lineup; we got them at the top with Julianna and throughout the lineup. That’s a good thing, and I’m extremely happy about that.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.