Gym'Backs have tough NCAA draw in Oklahoma

Arkansas' Norah Flatley (right) celebrates with teammates Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, after competing in the bars competition of the Razorbacks' meet with Alabama in Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas will have to pull off at least three upsets this weekend at the home of the reigning NCAA gymnastics champions if its season is to continue at the NCAA Championships.

The No. 17 Razorbacks, competing in their 19th consecutive NCAA regional, need to finish in the top two of tonight’s 6:45 NCAA Norman (Okla.) Regional semifinal at Oklahoma’s Noble Center to make Saturday’s regional final.

The host and defending NCAA champion Sooners are an overwhelming favorite in the semifinal with a National Qualifying Score of 198.355, more than a full point higher than any other squad they will face tonight.

The Razorbacks (197.08 NQS) will have to out-compete No. 16 Ohio State (197.1) and the winner of Wednesday’s late dual meet between No. 30 North Carolina State and No. 34 Ball State to survive and advance.

“I feel like Ohio State is the one we’re going to be looking to beat out in order to make it Day 2,” fourth-year Arkansas Coach Jordyn Wieber said. “I think all in all we’re completely capable. We just have to put it all together and have a great day.”

Today’s 2 p.m. semifinal will pit SEC rivals in No. 8 Alabama and No. 9 Kentucky against a pair of Big Ten teams in No. 20 Illinois and No. 25 Iowa.

The top two teams from each semifinal will hit the floor for Saturday’s 4:45 p.m. final, and the top two scorers in that meet will advance to the NCAA Championships on April 13-15 at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth.

The Razorbacks will get back a key performer but also lose one for the NCAAs. Fifth-year senior Kennedy Hambrick had an appendectomy last week, which effectively ended her college career, though she did travel with the team to Norman. Sophomore Leah Smith, who turned an ankle on a landing just before the final home meet three weeks ago, was held out of the SEC Championships, but she should be back on at least a couple of events.

“Our priority was regionals and getting her 100% healthy for regionals,” Wieber said. “Monday morning she was back in the gym tumbling and doing vaults. She’s had a full two weeks of practice now. She’s back to normal and feeling really good. We’re happy to have her back, especially on floor and vault.”

The Razorbacks will be led by senior all-arounder Norah Flatley, freshman Lauren Williams of Rogers and a host of event specialists who have helped Arkansas notch four 197s or better.

Arkansas is familiar with the venue, having advanced to the NCAA Normal Regional final last year, where it came in fourth behind Oklahoma, Minnesota and California.

“It helps a ton,” Wieber said. “For the non-freshman … we know the layout. We know how the arena feels. A lot of them say it feels similar to Bud Walton, which we obviously are used to competing in. I think that’s going to help.”