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Cats can't catch Tigers, but plenty of promise lies ahead

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Sarah Shipley (left) hits for a career-high on uneven bars with a 9.8. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Sara Shipley (left) hits for a career-high on uneven bars with a 9.8. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
There's no denying that the Southeastern Conference is one of the top conferences in collegiate gymnastics. As far as Kentucky's opponents go over the last two weeks, the UK gymnastics team is facing a murderer's row in a recent and upcoming stretch of SEC matchups. Last week it was two-time defending champions and No. 5 Alabama. Friday night, Kentucky went toe-to-toe with No. 6 LSU.

Though the Wildcats fell to the Tigers, 195.875-195.25, and head coach Tim Garrison doesn't believe in moral victories, Friday night's performance exhibited great potential for just how good this team could be later in the season.

"Obviously, we're disappointed in the outcome tonight, but there's a lot to be encouraged about," said Garrison. "I keep saying it and I can't wait to see it."

While Garrison continues to seek the consistency on the competition floor that his team brings in the practice gymnasium every day, he has seen that steadiness in junior Audrey Harrison. The junior earned her second all-around title in the last three weeks and third of the season with a 39.225, tying LSU's first-team All-American Rheagan Courville.

Harrison earned her second all-around title of the season at Excite Night when UK knocked off Arkansas, and she's been a model of consistency for the Wildcats all season long.

She proved it again against LSU with a career high 9.85 on beam and tied a season-high on her floor-exercise routine.

Harrison was encouraged by her team's effort Friday night as the Wildcats bounced back with a 195-plus score after earning a 194.8 at Alabama. She, like Garrison, sees the performance for what UK could be if the Cats clean things up.

"I'm proud of what we did tonight," said Harrison. "We had mistakes that were not usual for us. It was rare to see those things happen. It kind of gives us hope for the future because we know those things can be fixed."

Kentucky's ability to keep its composure was particularly impressive as UK bounced back on beam and floor despite a couple of tough breaks. The Wildcats started off strong on the vault with a team score of 48.825 highlighted by sophomore Shelby Hilton's career-high 9.875 to conclude the event.

The Wildcats then went to the uneven bars, an event that UK had seen much success in so far this season. Two costly mistakes wounded the Cats, however, and Kentucky was forced to count a fall in the event to knock the team score down to 48.500.

The Cats had no way of knowing at the time, but as UK finished up strong and LSU stumbled a bit down the stretch, the mistakes made on the bars potentially kept the Wildcats from picking up an upset victory over the talented LSU Tigers.

"(If) We hit that event right there, we're right there neck and neck," said Garrison. "Then we start putting on a little bit of pressure because we're so close, but you never can tell what will happen."

Garrison knows that his team is athletically capable of performing at a high level. His athletes pull off their routines daily in the practice gym. He's hopeful that as the gymnasts get more and more exposure to competitive atmospheres that those routines will manifest themselves in meets.

"I don't see these kinds of things that I saw on bars today in the gym," said Garrison. "I don't see the things we saw in vault today in the gym.

"I thought beam was great. I thought floor was great with a couple of little minor things. The last floor athletes that went really performed well. So we're real close. We're really, really close. We just haven't crossed the bridge yet."

The second half of the meet was much more encouraging as UK bounced back in a big way with performances on beam and floor.

Trailing 98.050-97.325 at the midway point, Kentucky looked to the beam to get back on track.

Junior Kayla Sienkowski led the event off with a career-high-tying 9.825. Harrison then earned the highest score of the night on the beam for UK with a career-high 9.85. To top it off, sophomore Sara Shipley earned her second career-high performance of the night with a 9.8 to pair with a 9.8 on the uneven bars. UK would finish beam with its highest score of the night, a 48.975.

Kentucky had a huge hill to climb to earn the victory heading into the floor event. The Wildcats were solid there, including sophomore Kenzie Hedges' season-high-tying 9.825. Harrison tied her season high with a 9.85 and junior Kayla Hartley finished the night off with a 9.775 as UK ended the event with a 48.95.

LSU clinched the meet, however, with a 48.750 that was enough to hold off UK's late rally.

Though Kentucky dropped its second straight meet for its third loss of the season, the Cats are back on the right track. In fact, Garrison was so encouraged by what he saw Friday night that he's willing to call his team one of the best in the country. If Kentucky gets it together soon, the rest of the SEC better take notice.

"We're an excellent team," said Garrison. "We're just not hitting like an excellent team. As we get more confident and start believing in that fact, then we'll be perform better, and when we perform better, we'll be able to hang with a lot of people in this conference and in the country.

"Watch out because we're going to be a force to be reckoned with, no doubt."

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