Three times LSU and Oklahoma’s gymnastics teams met last season. Twice the difference was a fraction of a point, 0.225 points to be exact. One of those margins was in favor of LSU in their 2016 season opener, 196.950-196.725. The other was at season’s end in favor of Oklahoma, 197.675-197.450 in the NCAA Super Six finals.
That margin, 0.225, could be the difference of a hop or two on a landing, a bobble or two on the balance beam, one false step on floor.
Again this year, the margin is razor thin between the No. 1-ranked Sooners and No. 2-ranked Tigers heading into their much-anticipated showdown Friday night in St. Charles, Missouri, in the Mardi Gras Invitational. Oklahoma (8-0) averages 197.813 per meet. LSU (6-0) averages 197.579, a difference of 0.234.
LSU coach D-D Breaux this week trotted out the “We want them to feel like it’s just another meet” line when describing the four-team event that also includes No. 10 Georgia (5-2) and No. 15 Missouri (8-3).
But she was also ready to throw down a challenge for the Sooners that simultaneously showed faith in her Tigers.
“I’ll say it all day long,” Breaux said Monday. “If it comes down to the last person on the last event, we win.”
First vault is set for 6:15 p.m. Because it isn’t a regular Southeastern Conference dual meet, the event won’t be televised on the SEC Network. It will be streamed live via the website FloGymnastics.com for a one-month subscription fee of $19.97.
Though SEC rivals Georgia and Missouri are in the meet, Friday’s results will not count in the SEC standings. LSU is 5-0 in conference and can clinch a tie for the inaugural SEC regular-season gymnastics championship with a win Feb. 24 at No. 17 Auburn.
So that, in a sense, makes Friday’s meet as much for bragging rights as anything else. And perhaps a bit of psychology. Certainly, the Tigers and Sooners will expect to have to deal with each other again in April at the NCAA championships.
“We’re up there with the best of them,” LSU senior Ashleigh Gnat said. “We’re doing a great job of staying in our process and staying true to who we are as a team. We obviously have things we know we can improve on. It’s only February, so we have a lot of time. But our goal this week is to get a little bit better.”
The meet will be something of a precursor to NCAA meet. Though it will be held in suburban St. Charles instead of St. Louis, it’ll be a similar trip for the competitors and line the NCAA championships will be a podium meet. That’s where the four events — vault, uneven bars, beam and floor exercise — are held on a raised podium instead of on a padded floor as they are for most college home meets.
“Being on the podium is definitely a huge advantage,” Gnat said. “Being able to get on one this early in the year before postseason is super amazing. It’s a little softer on our bodies, too, so when we come back on Sunday there will be less effect on our bodies.”
Factoring into LSU’s preparation for Friday’s meet is the fact the Tigers immediately fly home afterward to prepare for a three-team nonconference meet Sunday against No. 20 George Washington and No. 22 Iowa. That meet begins at 2:30 p.m. in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and will be streamed on SECNetwork+.
“We want to put our best lineup in Friday and try to get the very best score we can,” Breaux said. “But coming back on Sunday we don’t want to jeopardize our regional qualifying score (RQS). We’re going to take some people out of the lineup and insert some other people, but we’re going to try to stay on that 197 pace that we’re on.”
With its 197.700-196.325 win last Friday at Arkansas, LSU tied a school record with its 14th straight score of 197 or better dating to last season. Quite an achievement, but in Oklahoma, LSU will be dealing with a team that has posted three scores better than the Tigers’ top score of 197.825 in their season-opening win over Georgia.
Individually, the meet will be a showdown between Gnat the senior and Oklahoma freshman sensation Maggie Nichols. Nichols has the nation’s top scores in all-around and on bars, beam and floor, with her “lowest” score being a 9.875 last week on vault against Auburn. Gnat leads the nation on vault with a 9.933 average (Nichols is third) and is third on floor and tied for fifth in all-around with LSU’s own freshman sensation, Kennedi Edney.
Edney has won three straight all-around titles but will be challenged to keep that streak going against Nichols.
“Kennedy is not the polished, complete gymnast that Maggie Nichols is,” Breaux said. “She came into college with a high degree of difficulty, but not the hype that Maggie has had.
“It’ll be interesting. I hope Kennedi handles this pressure situation and spotlight because there will be some other great all-arounders in this meet besides LSU and Oklahoma.”
Georgia’s top all-arounder is Morgan Reynolds, who ranks 17th nationally, while teammate Natalie Vaculik is tied for fifth on beam. Missouri’s Britney Ward is those Tigers’ highest-ranked gymnast, tied for 13th nationally on vault.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Breaking down Friday’s big matchup in the Mardi Gras Invitational between LSU’s Ashleigh Gnat and Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols:
Senior Class Freshman
5-0 Height 5-4
Lake Mary, Fla. Hometown Little Canada, Minn.
T5th (39.500) All-around 1st (39.767)
1st (9.933) Vault 3rd (9.929)
T125th (9.762) Bars 1st (9.938)
T20th (9.858) Beam 1st (9.937)
3rd (9.937) Floor 1st (9.963)
1 (Vault) Perfect 10s 3 (V, BB, FX)
TEAM SEC PCT. OVERALL PCT. HIGH
LSU 5-0 1.000 6-0 1.000 197.825
Florida 3-1 .750 5-1 .833 197.925
Georgia 4-2 .667 5-2 .714 197.075
Kentucky 2-3 .400 4-3 .571 197.425
Alabama 2-3 .400 3-4 .429 197.825
Arkansas 2-3 .400 2-4 .333 196.375
Missouri 1-3 .250 8-3 .727 196.225
Auburn 0-4 .000 0-7 .000 196.400
LSU at Mardi Gras Invitational (Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma), 7:30 p.m.*
Florida at Arkansas, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Auburn at Alabama, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
George Washington/Iowa at LSU, 2:30 p.m. (SECNetwork+)
Kentucky/Penn/William & Mary at Maryland, 1 p.m.
*-at St. Charles, Missouri