By Roger Clarkson
AUBURN , Ala. – On a night when another fidgety performance could mean the end of the season, Georgia delivered one of its most consistent efforts.
The Gym Dogs dealt out a steady diet of clean routines spiced with more than enough spectacular moments to carry them to 197.1 points and the championship in the Auburn Regional on Saturday at Auburn Arena. Kat Ding and Noel Couch also finished 1-2, respectively, in the individual all-around competition.
“This feels great, it really does,” Couch said. “It was great to be able to put that kind of performance on the floor. We were so much more consistent than we were two weeks ago at SECs. We knew what we wanted to do, and that’s what we did. We had an attack mindset the whole meet and stayed after it.”
Saturday’s win was the Gym Dogs’ first in a postseason meet since 2009 and their highest point total on the road this season. Georgia and second-place Oregon State qualified for the NCAA National Championships on April 22-24 in the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth.
“We’ve experienced just about everything you could possibly experience in the last three years in regionals,” Georgia coach Jay Clark said. “The kids did a great job. They came in with a great mindset. They trained that way yesterday (Friday). They warmed up that way today.”
Georgia only had three scores of less than 9.8 in the entire meet and did not have to count any of them. Ding finished first in all-around with 39.5 points and Couch tied for second in all-around with 39.425.
“It’s exciting and it’s certainly a positive,” Couch said. “But the main thing though is we finished first as a team, so we’re really happy about that. We certainly improved on how we competed from two weeks ago (SECs) and that’s what we set out to do. We worked on that in the gym the last two weeks, so for us to come out here to night and do this was a big accomplishment.”
Georgia led from the outset as it scored 49.3 on uneven parallel bars, highlighted by a pair of 9.9s from Ding and Gina Nuccio. Georgia seemed to be cruising to a comfortable finish on balance beam when anchor Shayla Worley landed on her knees on her dismount and scored 9.4, including the .5-point deduction just before going to the locker room for a bye rotation.
“When we had that bye rotation, we went into the locker room and we just started jamming to music and having fun and being silly,” Ding said. “That’s really what this team is about. We’re not so serious that when you make a mistake, we can’t bring it back. We have to have a little fun and a little humor, so when we came back out from the locker room we were raring to go.”
Georgia responded with 49.4 points on floor as Couch scored 9.925 to win the event and freshman Chelsea Davis added a 9.9.
“We wanted to be aggressive and we didn’t want to hold back,” Georgia senior Gina Nuccio said. “Obviously having the fall on beam didn’t really change our mindset. We went back to the locker room and listened to some music and got ourselves pumped up for the last half of the meet.”
Georgia closed out the meet with a 49.3 on vault, and Oregon State finished a distant second with 196.45 points.
“We finished on pace or higher in the second half of the meet than we did in the first half,” Ding said. “That’s huge for us because last year we were a first-half team and now we’re the whole meet. We have to be the whole meet and be consistent all the way around.”
Unlike two weeks ago at SECs when Georgia only had one score of at least 9.9, the Gym Dogs hit that magic number six times on Saturday. Couch had a 9.25 on floor and a 9.9 on vault. Ding had a 9.9 on bars and a 9.9 on vault. Davis had a 9.9 on floor and Nuccio added a 9.9 on bars.
“This year, we have been a very consistent team,” Clark said. “That’s what we said we wanted to be when we started the season. What we lack in star power in certain spots, this team has shown a resiliency and a mental stability that I think has served them very well.”