ATHENS, Ga. — After taking a little step backward, a wobble in gymnastics parlance, in the Southeastern Conference championships two weeks ago, LSU was back on track Saturday afternoon.
In the meet that really counted, the NCAA Athens regional, third-ranked LSU had to finish first or second to win a ticket to its season-long goal: the NCAA championships in Fort Worth, Texas.
That certainly was no problem Saturday.
The top-seeded Tigers dominated the scoring — especially when it came to their final two rotations on floor exercise and vault — and handily claimed the regional title with a 197.300 score.
LSU and host Georgia, which took second place with a 196.850, were two of five SEC teams to advance to the national semifinals in the six regionals held around the country Saturday.
The first six-team semifinal, which will is set for April 15 at 1 p.m. in the Fort Worth Convention Center, will have a decided SEC flavor with LSU, Georgia, Auburn and Florida competing along with Minnesota and Stanford.
In the other semifinal at 7 p.m., Alabama will go against Oklahoma, Nebraska, Utah, UCLA and Cal.
The top three teams from each semifinal session will advance to compete for the national title in the Super Six finals the next evening.
After doing what they came to do Saturday, LSU coach D-D Breaux and her athletes were happy. Yet, they were far from satisfied after getting back to business following that unsettling performance at the SEC meet.
It was a lesson learned, a smiling Breaux said.
She said her team, which had four freshmen and two sophomores competing Saturday, came out with a decidedly different mindset and was the intimidator after being intimidated by the competition at the conference meet.
“That’s what has to happen from here on out,” Breaux said as she began to look ahead after qualifying for nationals for the 14th time in 15 seasons. “We have to go in and knock the doors down.”
Even though judges scored the meet a little tighter than the conference championships, LSU and Georgia were the only teams in the six-team field to score a 49 or better in all four events.
But the Tigers bested the GymDogs in all four — pulling away after its second bye of the afternoon.
After all six teams had completed two rotations, LSU held a narrow 98.450-98.325 lead over Georgia.
But the Tigers, who rank second in the nation in floor exercise and lead the country in vault, had those events coming up with an opportunity to build a bigger cushion and secure their trip to nationals.
They came through with a 49.450 on floor despite having two athletes suffer deductions for stepping out of bounds, then finished with a 49.400 on vault.
“We just felt like we were getting some momentum going when we went to floor,” Breaux said. “We had a couple of out-of-bounds, but then the vaulters went out and delivered their best performance of the season.”
Still, they know they’ll have to keep it up in what they hope are their final two meets of the season.
“It wasn’t a perfect meet,” said Tigers All-American Ashleigh Gnat, who knows about perfection with six 10s on the vault and floor exercise this season. “The good thing is we have some time to get back in the gym and fix the things we need to work on.”
Gnat tied teammate Myia Hambrick for the floor title with a 9.95 and was second on vault with a 9.925, finishing behind teammate Sydney Ewing’s 9.975.
Hambrick had a solid day in winning the all-around title with a 39.550 score. In addition to tying for the floor ex title, she shared the title on the beam and tied for fourth on bars.
“We know we can still improve on some things,” Hambrick said. “Right now, it’s about peaking at the right time. We started peaking at the end of the regular season, but we have a younger team and the SEC meet was a new experience for a lot of them.
“But we’re all learning together and everybody seems to have a good grasp on the direction we need to be moving in. This was a very positive step.”