BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux easily could have been heartbroken after the Tigers’ first rotation in the semifinals of the NCAA championships Friday afternoon.
Breaux glanced up the scoreboard after the floor exercise, one of LSU’s signature events, and saw a 9.850 next to the names of stars Lloimincia Hall and Rheagan Courville.
By then, sophomore Jessica Savona and freshman Ashleigh Gnat had already put up scores of 9.925 and 9.90 to help keep things from getting away from the Tigers early.
Then Gnat cranked out another 9.90 on vault to match Courville’s score, giving the Tigers some confidence and momentum they needed to finish third and earn a spot in Saturday night’s Super Six finals.
LSU wound up with a 197.100 score — its second-lowest of the season — and reached its goal of getting to the national finals, but Breaux knew how it got there.
Coupled with a 9.850 score on bars and a 9.80 on beam by Kaleigh Dickson, who competed despite a right foot injury she suffered at regionals April 5, and a clutch 9.90 on beam by freshman Sydney Ewing, the Tigers received much-needed support from some unlikely places.
“We used freshmen in our lineup, and we had some great performances,” Breaux said. “We feel like some of our best kids didn’t have their best night. So the night was carried by the front of our lineup — in some cases, the end of the lineup secured it.”
While Courville, Hall and Jessie Jordan struggled a bit, it was Gnat, Savona, Ewing and Dickson, a senior, who picked them up.
“That was real exciting for us to see them do what they were supposed to do and see them be confident about it,” Courville said. “It really builds confidence in all of us, when we see people just doing their job and excelling.”
With the help of associate head coach Jay Clark, Gnat shook off some butterflies just before she started her floor exercise routine — not knowing at the time how important her score would turn out to be.
“Before we compete, I’m usually nervous,” Gnat said. “This was a different environment for me. Even though most of the team has been here before, everything was really loud and it was really exciting.”
Gnat finished her night with a 9.80 on beam but was excited with her score on floor where she nearly matched her career high of 9.925.
“I have been struggling a little bit on floor, so hitting that routine really made me happy,” said Gnat, who was replaced in the floor lineup by Maliah Mathis at the Southeastern Conference championships March 22. “I was really excited about how I did today. Just before floor, (Clark) just said, ‘Breathe and do what you know how to do,’ and that’s what I did.”
Breaux was impressed with what Dickson brought to the team. Even though she was held out of vault and floor exercise, she delivered on bars and beam — an event she didn’t know she’d be able to compete in until Wednesday.
“There were no problems,” Dickson said. “It hurt a little, but it was nothing that I couldn’t push through for the next couple of days.”
“Kaleigh did a rock-star job for us today,” Breaux said. “She was just fabulous, and I think it was her (bars) score that kind of catapulted us into the middle and end of the lineup.”