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Gymnastics looks to vault into complete performance against No. 1 Florida

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Shelby Hilton and the Wildcats are looking for more sticks on vault as they close out the SEC regular season at Florida. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Shelby Hilton and the Wildcats are looking for more sticks on vault as they close out the SEC regular season at Florida. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
For the first time in four weeks, the Kentucky gymnastics team will be back on the road this Friday. After facing three consecutive top-10 SEC teams, UK finally caught a break against unranked Missouri last weekend.

UK, however, will not have the luxury of easing back into road competition with the No. 1-ranked Florida Gators awaiting the Wildcats Friday night in Gainesville, Fla.

After building up quite a bit of momentum when UK reached its highest score of the season in a tie at home with No. 7 Georgia, the Wildcats took a step back in their progression against the Missouri Tigers. Through the first two events against Missouri, UK was on pace to reach 196 for the first time this season after a solid performance on vault and a season-high score 49.150 on the uneven bars.

But then misfortune bit the Cats in a nearly disastrous way.

Kentucky had three performers fall during their beam events, allowing Missouri to stay in the meet and almost pull off the upset. Kentucky went on to perform well enough to hold off the Tigers by 0.125 points to earn the victory despite the Cats' lowest overall output of the season.

The beam, however, is one of head coach Tim Garrison's lesser concerns.  Instead, he's looking toward another event, one that has been so-so but far from their standards they've set in the practice gym.

"We need to get to the point of being precise enough to stick the vault and be able to compete it well," said Garrison. "If you look at what we've done just on that event alone, we've given away so many tenths this year. That can totally change our ranking right now."

UK, currently ranked No. 23, has had a very successful season by any measure. Garrison - and he hopes his athletes would agree - believes his team is capable of much more. Uneven bars have been a staple in meets so far this season, but it's the vault that is continuing to give the Cats trouble.

In UK's 42 (counted) vault performances, the Wildcats have only stuck four of those routines, a tick less than 10 percent

"That's not good enough," said Garrison.

By comparison, the impact of not sticking vault landings is equal to each floor exercise performer stepping out of bounds on each routine during a meet, costing a tenth of a point. While that may not seem like much, those tenths add up quickly, especially when a few tenths can mean the difference between a 195-plus and the first 196 of the season, a score that Garrison feels should come almost routinely.

"The potential of our team is 196.5 just on a normal day when the scores are normal and we do what we're supposed to do, we're a 196.5 team," said Garrison. "If they're scoring well, we could approach 197. We really could."

In order to do that, UK has to get off to a faster start. In home meets, Kentucky starts off on vault. A strong performance in the event could set the tone for the team's first "complete performance" of the season. Garrison says his team is still in search of that moment.

While UK is less concerned with beating Florida this weekend than handling its own business and putting up the best score of the season, if Kentucky makes the necessary jump on vault and continues to execute on bars, they could put some serious pressure on the top-ranked Gators.

On the road, UK will start on uneven bars, which may be beneficial to them since leading off with vault hasn't been the Cats' greatest strength the last four weeks at home. If UK can get through the first two events unscathed, it just might give the Cats a puncher's chance Friday night.

"You go over and rock bars at an away meet, like this weekend, if we go over and hit bars and then stick vault, now we're putting pressure on some of these other teams," said Garrison. "We've done a decent job of putting pressure on teams this year anyway, but we could be ahead. We could have better overall scores.

"It's not just the Missouri meet because I think beam has been great for us all year. We've been getting part, but not all of the events that we're doing, and that's not good enough. I said if we don't challenge, we could very easily miss out on some of our goals."

What Kentucky has going for is this weekend is the experience of performing in this type of environment already once this season. The Cats traveled to defending national champion Alabama before starting their four-meet home stand. It was a struggle for UK, but an experience the team needed.

Garrison believed his team was fully prepared to head into that environment technically, but the results proved otherwise. Now, with that experience in the Cats' back pocket, Friday night's atmosphere should be less of a factor.

If Kentucky finds itself in the situation where the Cats have to come from behind, well, they've been in that position this season already too.

"Unfortunately we've been in the position a couple of times this season where we've had to come back, and they've never given up on a competition regardless of what happened," said Garrison. "We're going to go down there and we're not going to lay down for anybody. I don't think this team will ever do that."

The Wildcats will need to get off to that fast start to hang with Florida Friday night. It will be a challenge, but one that UK is looking forward to. The Cats know what they are capable of; now it's time for them to execute on the big stage.

"If we start coming along on vault, our potential is greater as a team," said Garrison. "If we could start sticking our vaults, because our vaults are so much stronger than they were at the beginning of the year, we're capable of 49.2-49.3."

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