There was a time when it took Shaquille O’Neal and his larger-than-life, rim-rattling theatrics to fill the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Friday night, the PMAC was filled again, fans drawn to the theatrics of a bunch of perfectly manicured young women vaulting and spinning and tumbling to the choreography of a cutting-edge soundtrack worthy of a Vegas floor show.
A total of 12,217 came to watch No. 3 LSU match technique and talent with No. 2 Florida, a record for LSU gymnastics, plus one costumed Tiger dropping on a rope from the ceiling like at the LSU-Kentucky basketball game a couple of weeks ago. It was more fans than could possibly ever jam into Alex Box Stadium down Nicholson Drive, all of them drawn to watch a meet that will preview the Tigers’ and Gators’ battle for the Southeastern Conference and probably NCAA championships down another glory road.
It was a landmark night for the LSU program. Thousands have come before to watch LSU gymnastics, including 7,772 for the Tigers’ win over No. 3 Georgia two weeks ago, but never anything approaching this many. Before this, LSU’s biggest crowd was 8,574 for a meet with Alabama two years ago.
There probably haven’t been this many people in the PMAC to watch gymnastics since Mary Lou Retton (whose daughter McKenna Kelley is an LSU signee for next season) wowed the masses here 30 years ago in the long defunct Mardi Gras Invitational.
For coach D-D Breaux, in her 38th season the only coach this program has ever had, a packed PMAC was a long-term dream come true.
“It was a goal,” she said. “When Jay (Clark, LSU assistant coach) got here three years ago, he said in our first staff meeting, ‘We can fill that place.’ It’s something I’ve always dreamed of and worked for. We did it tonight.”
This year, LSU gymnastics has become a happening, and this meet was the capper.
The Tigers host Minnesota in their home finale on March 6, but given the opponent and the stakes this was the one to see.
To Breaux, Friday night was about marketing savvy matching the majesty of the athletes on the mat.
“This team is an attraction,” Breaux said. “It’s not just me standing in front of the Winn-Dixie giving out tickets.
“We’ve got a great brand. And it’s extremely affordable. We’ve made an effort over the years to be a Friday night destination for families.”
The success of the program sells itself, of course, perhaps more than anything. A colleague once told me fans turn out in Baton Rouge for LSU football, Southern football and LSU sports that win. It’s still largely true, and the achievements of Breaux’s program have built brick by glittery brick.
After years of trying and falling short, LSU has made four Super Six appearances — gymnastics’ equivalent of the Final Four or the College World Series — since 2008. The Tigers have produced 10 NCAA individual champions, two of them on vault by Baton Rouge senior Rheagan Courville, who should go down as one of the best home-grown athletes ever at LSU along with Billy Cannon, Jimmy Taylor, Bob Pettit and Seimone Augustus.
Courville may be just 5-foot-4, but she can leap like a Pettit or O’Neal. She soared over vault and mat like a sequin-covered barnstormer, her cheers eclipsed only by those for floor exercise anchor Lloimincia Hall.
Hall is a show-stopper, her floor routine 90 seconds of attitude and athleticism and grit (she performed with a taped-up left knee).
When Hall finished and pointed a finger to toward the ceiling, there was hardly anyone in the PMAC still using their seats, and it was a fair bet a piece of the roof might come down because of the sound waves.
Victory for LSU was almost an afterthought, but it was a winning night for the Tigers on the scoreboard as well as at the turnstiles.
The Tigers outpointed the Gators with their second-best score of the season, 197.950-197.425. A half-point victory may not sound like much, but in football terms it’s like winning by a couple of touchdowns.
LSU hasn’t won the SEC gymnastics title since 1981, but though Florida will be a prime challenger, there’s no reason the Tigers can’t do it this year.
The same for the NCAA team title. The only time LSU got nipped this season was by No. 1 Oklahoma 197.700-197.425 in a four-team meet on the road earlier this season.
Though the Tigers are going to lose Courville and Hall after this season, the long-term future is bright for the program. Rising just north of the PMAC is a state-of-the-art training facility scheduled to open this fall that Breaux said will meet the program’s needs for the next 15-20 years.
“Either come with us,” she said, “or get out of the way.”
Friday night it looked like plenty of LSU fans are eager to go along for the ride.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.