No. 16 Arkansas gymnasts host No. 6 Kentucky after lengthy road stint

Arkansas gymnastics coach Jordyn Wieber (right) is shown with Lauren Williams, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024 during a gymnastics meet at Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville. (Charlie Kaijo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)

FAYETTEVILLE — A lot has happened since the University of Arkansas gymnasts last competed at Barnhill Arena on Jan. 26.

Over the past three weekends, the Razorbacks have taken on five of the top 10 teams in the country and four of the top 5. They’ve seen a scintillating run of opponent scores — 198.475 by LSU, 198.3 by Oklahoma and 197.85 by Florida — and experienced their first losses of the season.

Now Arkansas is back at home, and the rugged and unrelenting schedule is still churning.

The No. 16 Razorbacks will try to maintain their clean home record tonight when they compete against No. 6 Kentucky at 7:30 p.m. at Barnhill.

“We’re really happy to be home,” Coach Jordyn Wieber said. “Four meets in a row on the road is tough. We learned a lot along the way.

“We’re just excited to be back with our fans and our home crowd … in our last meet at Barnhill for the season before we move over to Bud [Walton Arena].”

Wieber said the Razorbacks are “chasing their normal” with tonight’s competition, meaning converting their consistency in the practice gym into competition. Arkansas opened the seaso with three consecutive scores of 197-plus, including a school-record 197.525 at Alabama, but the Razorbacks have counted a fall or major deduction in three of their past four meets. They did not have to do that in Monday’s second-place finish at the Texas Womans University Quad Meet, resulting in a 197.375.

With National Qualifying Scores criteria kicking in next week, dropping a season-low 196.06 from a loss at Florida on Feb. 9 is a priority for Arkansas.

“When we are on an average day we can hit 197 and so obviously pushing that mid-197 is what we’re capable of, I think, when we’re on fire on all four events,” Wieber said

The Razorbacks’ record is 5-5-1 overall and 2-2-1 in the SEC. but that includes seven competitions against current No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 LSU, No. 3 California, No. 5 Florida, No. 10 Alabama and No. 12 Auburn.

“That keeps us on our toes, obviously,” Wieber said of the Razorbacks’ schedule. “There are no down weeks and I think it’s really good for the team. Being able to consistently go out and push your potential every week is something you want your team to be able to feel.

“You don’t want them to go into a meet going, ‘Oh, this is an easy opponent’ and let their guard down. So I love that for us. Being in this conference, there’s such a benefit to our strength of schedule.”

The Razorbacks have been carried by their floor exercise lineup and vault, the two events on which they have not counted a fall all season. They scored 49.575 on the floor exercise last week, led by 9.95s from sophomores Frankie Price and Lauren Williams, and a 9.925 from junior Maddie Jones.

Williams, of Rogers, and Price rank 16th and 19th, respectively, in the nation on the floor exercise. The Razorbacks have two other top 25 competitors, with Williams ranked 18th on the vault and junior Kalyxta Gamiao ranked 23rd on the balance beam.

The Wildcats feature fifth-year senior All-American Raena Worley, the nation’s No. 2 all-around gymnast who is the top-ranked performer on both the uneven bars (9.946 average) and the floor exercise (9.961).

Kentucky is coming off six consecutive scores of 197-plus, including a win at Alabama with a 197.6. The Wildcats have averaged 197.625 in those last six meets.

Last season, the Wildcats scored 197.875 to beat the Razorbacks at home by more than two points, then finished fourth at the SEC Championships and second at the NCAA Norman (Okla.) Regional to qualify for the NCAA finals. Kentucky finished sixth in the national semifinals with a 197.125.

“Kentucky is a great team and they’re obviously coming off of a national championship qualification last year,” Wieber said.

Kentucky holds the scoring edge over Arkansas on all four apparatus, including leads of better than two-tenths of a point on the uneven bars and balance beam. The Wildcats are leading the nation with an average score of 49.407 on the vault.

Arkansas once held a huge 18-1 advantage in its series with the Wildcats, but Kentucky has trimmed that to a 25-16 edge by winning 11 of the past 13 meetings. The Wildcats have won the past seven dual meets against the Razorbacks, including three in a row at Barnhill Arena since Arkansas’ 197.225-to-196.7 win on Feb. 26, 2016.