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Gymnastics finds small victory in tie with No. 6 Georgia

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UK sophomore Shelby Hilton propelled UK to a team-high score this season with her performances on vault and uneven bars. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK sophomore Shelby Hilton propelled UK to a team-high score this season with her performances on vault and uneven bars. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's 195.825 tie with No. 6 Georgia is huge for the UK gymnastics program. When head coach Tim Garrison and his athletes look back on the season and realize what they accomplished on Feb. 8, 2013, they'll smile and remember the great night they had and the late drama that led to it.

But at least for this moment, Garrison knows that this is just the beginning of something special.

While greedy might not be an appropriate term after Friday night's historic result, Garrison continues to ask more of his gymnasts. He thinks there are even brighter days ahead.

"We're excited, there's no doubt about it," said Garrison. "But what I told the athletes was we've closed the gap, but we haven't closed it entirely. We've made some strides. We're doing a lot of the big things well, but we're doing a lot of the little things not so well."

You could take Garrison's stance on his team's performance tonight a couple of different ways.

One: Garrison will never be happy with the way his athletes perform and good is never good enough.

Or two: Garrison strives for greatness, sees untapped potential in his athletes, and he feels it's his duty to bring the best out of them every day.

If you haven't figured it out, it's the latter.

Garrison has high hopes for his team, and he'll tell you straight up that he sees remarkable performances from the gymnasts every day in the practice gym. The progression of the team so far this season would suggest that Garrison is onto something.

Even the athletes are taking note of the progress they've made.

"We are definitely going in the right direction," said sophomore Shelby Hilton. "We've worked really hard, especially for tonight. We've been doing one rounds and preparing for our routines to hit and not make the little mistakes, so I think we really accomplished that tonight."

Last week against No. 6 LSU, Kentucky struggled on uneven bars. The Wildcats were forced to count a fall in the event and it ended up costing UK an opportunity to catch the Tigers. On this night, UK had no critical missteps, and as Georgia struggled mightily on the vault, Kentucky capitalized on the floor to pull within tenths of a point of the Bulldogs.

Tiarra Phipps led off with a 9.775 to get the ball rolling. Alexis Gross, who had a huge meet up until this point, lost a tenth when she stepped out of bounds. But the Cats ran off four straight scores of 9.8 or better to pick up their teammate like they've done all season.

Kenzie Hedges hit a 9.8. Shannon Mitchell a career-high tying 9.825. Audrey Harrison - no surprises here - shined with a season-high and career-high tying 9.9.

Needing a 9.825 to tie, floor anchor Kayla Hartley came up with her best performance of the evening.

The team swarmed Hartley knowing that she had just done something special. How special was still the question each member of the Memorial Coliseum crowd was left asking.

As the judges submitted their scores, Hartley earned an average of 9.8, falling just .025 points shy of pulling even with Georgia.

As both teams went to the floor for the final score announcement, Kentucky was proud of what it had done on the night, but the Cats knew they had missed an opportunity yet again to beat one of the best teams in the country and Southeastern Conference. Harrison, for the second week in a row and the fourth time in SEC competition, earned the all-around title with a final score of 39.3.

Not sold on the final outcome, Garrison and the staff made a final inquiry to the judges to review Hartley's final performance.

The judges went back to review the video. After further review, Hartley was awarded the addition .025 points she needed to help the Wildcats pull even with Georgia at 195.825 and give UK its best overall team performance of the season.

Still, Garrison thinks his team is only scratching the surface.

"In fact, we could be a lot better than this," said Garrison. "If we look around and we look at some of the things we've done, which we do every Monday after a meet, we look at mistakes and 'this we can fix, that we can fix.' There are a lot of things we can clean up and make a heck of a lot better."

A few varitions in the Kentucky lineups Friday night may be a contributing factor to as to why UK turned in their best night of the season. Garrison decided to tweak the lineups and move some athletes around to try and put them in better situations to succeed.

So far, even if it's just one night, the payoff has been huge. But he may be not done just yet.

"We might even play with it a little bit more," said Garrison. "I have a few other ideas with some athletes that are coming on in some events that they aren't even in right now. I think they paid off for us."

One of the athletes that seemed to benefit from the tweaks was Hilton. Garrison removed her from the floor lineup Friday, but stuck her on the anchor of the vault. She came up with an important 9.825 to finish the event, and then went over to uneven bars and gave UK a career-high-tying performance with an impressive routine that garnered a 9.825.

"We took her out of the floor lineup this week, but she performed outstanding on bars and she performed great on vault," said Garrison. "I think putting her in the sixth spot on vault has helped her tremendously."

For tonight, Kentucky can relax and live in the moment.

The Cats will enjoy their performance, spend time with friends and family and then Monday start preparing for Missouri trying to capitalize on the momentum they built against Georgia Friday night.

Garrison and his team will look back on this night when the season is over and see it as a huge night for their season and for their program, but the team's memory will be short when they get back in the gym next week.

"We'll smile a little bit about it tonight," said Garrison, "But it's a 195.825 and a tie of the number six team in the country. But it's just that: a 195.825. We're capable of 196-plus and that's where we're headed."

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