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Despite setback at SECs, UK gynmnastics gunning for nationals

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Audrey Harrison and her teammates will look to advance to the NCAA Championships with a top-two finish at the Morgantown regional. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Audrey Harrison and her teammates will look to advance to the NCAA Championships with a top-two finish at the Morgantown regional. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After the Kentucky gymnastics team suffered a setback to its historical season with an eighth-place finish at the Southeastern Conference Championships, head coach Tim Garrison hasn't done very much coaching.

Yes, that sounds alarming. No, it's not as bad as it sounds. It, in all likelihood, is the best thing for UK gymnastics right now.

"I've done less coaching since that meet than I have at any point in the season prior to that, which is great," said Garrison of practice since SECs. "If I'm doing less coaching, that means they're doing more on their own. So I love that."

The Wildcats have responded, even if it's just in the practice gym. They've taken ownership of what happened in Little Rock, Ark., that day and have tried to get back to their old ways.

Confidence heading into the championships was at an all-time high for the Wildcat gymnasts, but the environment and the big stage may have been more of a factor than they had expected.

"I just think it just kind of fell apart a little bit," said junior Kayla Hartley. "I think nerves has a lot to do with is and going up on platform and not being used to it and not really knowing what to expect and how to adjust to being in that big of arena."

Kentucky wasn't sharp in warm-ups, and it showed in its first event. From there, it all kind of snowballed. A team that's been so used to getting off to solid starts for the majority of the season saw the opposite effect take place last weekend.

That led to Kentucky's second-lowest point total of the season as UK finished in eighth place with a 194.6, a surprising and disappointing performance.

"I was pretty surprised because we've been doing so awesome and going 196 four times in a row," said junior Audrey Harrison. "We were expecting to do it again, so it was surprising."

Kentucky would have loved to put up a huge score at SECs heading into the regional selections. It would have boosted its regional qualifying score as well as given Kentucky a full head of steam heading into NCAAs. Though the Wildcats couldn't accomplish those goals, there is still one big goal out there, one that they've had their sights set on from the beginning of the season: Nationals.

Kentucky was selected as the No. 4 seed for the Morgantown, W. Va., regional which is set for 6 p.m. ET Saturday on the campus of West Virginia. They will join top-seeded Michigan, No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Illinois, No. 5 West Virginia, and No. 6 North Carolina.

Saturday evening, Kentucky looks to be one of the top two teams in the regional advancing to Los Angeles, Calif., for the NCAA Championships, even if no one else does.

"We're not expected to make it. Other people aren't expecting us to make it," Garrison said. "But we're expecting to be the spoiler. That's what we're trying to do. That's kind of where we are."

The regional provides another chance, and UK's last chance, to prove to everyone how far this team has come. But the Wildcats have to get back to being themselves in order for that to take place.

"I feel like there is a chip on our shoulder," said Hartley. "We just really want to go out there. SECs was a mess-up. This is our do-over and this is what we're going to do, and we're just going to do what we do. We're not going to put on any extra pressure on ourselves because of that chip. We're just going to do what we do."

Garrison has noticed the chip as well.

"I think they have a bad taste in their mouth," said Garrison. "I feel like we went into SECs and they did not even close to what they are capable of or what they expected to do. They came out of it fired up and ready to go and I've noticed it in practice."

Harrison believes her team just had a really tough day at the championships. Hartley thought the environment and format of the event may have played a role. Garrison felt the slow start derailed the Wildcats for the rest of the day.

Whatever the cause, there's much to be learned from that experience going forward.

Garrison wasted no time in trying to figure out what happened that night, so he cancelled the team's dinner reservations, had the food ordered to go and held an impromptu team meeting in his hotel room. Just as shaken as the athletes were, Garrison asked the team what had happened.

"I just threw it to them and said, 'You guys tell me what happened. It was just as strange for me as it was for you. What happened?' " said Garrison. "There were a lot of good things that came out of it. One, they were upset. Not pouty upset, but mad upset, which is great. The leaders were especially upset.

"I think some good things came out of it. I don't want to dwell on this, but I don't want to forget about it either. If you want to use it as fire, great. If you want to use it as motivation, fine, that's awesome."

However the Cats have used the experience from the SECs, it appears to at least be working in practice, which is essential as UK looks to make one final run at nationals. But unlike the SECs, the Wildcats are looking to get back to who they are, not where or who they are doing it against.

"It means a lot because we all really want to make nationals really bad," said Harrison. "It does mean a lot to us, but I think we've just got to stay calm and confident going into it. Maybe not build it up as the most important thing, but just do what we do in practice and then we'll do great."

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