With the help of a disco ball, flashing lights and smoke, the University of Kentucky gymnastics team returned to Rupp Arena in style and swagger Friday night, staging a montage performance from the pre-encounter pyrotechnics that occurred during the team’s introduction.
The UK – ranked No. 13 in the country in the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association’s pre-season poll – opened their 2022 season with the return of Excite Night inside the Rupp Arena after an absence of two years, with the Wildcats earning a 196.525–194.750 victory over Ball State.
The occasion was marked by a stellar effort from British junior Raena Worley, who was the only gymnast from either team to compete in all four events (bars, beam, floor and vault).
Worley had outright victories on bars, beam and vault recording the highest individual scores, and Worley tied with British sophomore Hailey Davis for the best score on floor. Worley was named the all-around champion, the seventh time she has won a UK all-around title.
It was a comprehensive win in front of 9,226 fans to mark Kentucky’s first meeting of the season after last week’s scheduled appointment between Arizona State and the United Kingdom has been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns in the Arizona State program.
Kentucky was supposed to face No. 15 Georgia on Excite Night in a Southeastern Conference ranked-team matchup, but the Bulldogs dropped out after COVID-19 issues in its schedule. Ball State was announced as Georgia’s replacement on Thursday afternoon.
“Competition has a rhythm of its own and you can’t fake it,” said British gymnastics coach Tim Garrison. “Just getting started and going, feels good.”
“It was so amazing to be able to be back in Rupp,” said Worley, who won the jump for the first time with a score of 9.900. “To compete at the Memorial (Coliseum) is one thing, but to be able to be in such a big arena with all the fans is so different.”
Kentucky outperformed Ball State in all four events Friday night.
Garrison said ahead of Friday’s encounter that he expected bars and vault to be two of the UK’s strongest events this season. The Wildcats’ performance at those events on Friday was what Garrison was looking for, as the UK posted team scores of 49.275 on bars and 49.225 on vault.
“We started really strong on the vault, the landings could have been a little stronger, but it’s a first encounter,” Garrison said. “The bars (were) very similar. Had a great swing, lots of range, didn’t hold back a bit and missed a few landings here and there. But overall I think we performed very well.
After competing inside the Memorial Coliseum for all four of its home games last season, the Wildcats fed on the energy of the Rupp Arena crowd.
Garrison singled out Worley as a gymnast who embraces the excitement of such a large crowd.
“She puts on a show, she involves everyone in this room,” Garrison said of Worley. “The biggest thing we noticed about her when we recruited her was her absolute love for the sport. . . . When they’re 18, 19, 20, we look for this 12-year-old boy who runs in the gym with her bag slung over her shoulder and can’t get enough of it. That’s Raena Worley.
For Garrison, Worley’s post-game media interview was delayed as she interacted with young fans in the stands at Rupp Arena.
“The energy in the arena is off the charts,” Worley said. “There’s always someone you want to watch or someone you’re going to connect with, and being able to interact with the audience makes it so much fun.”
Friday’s pre-match events at Rupp Arena included honoring several former British gymnasts as well as the program’s first head coach, Leah Little, who oversaw the Wildcats when Excite Night came into existence.
In addition to Worley’s impressive outing, sophomore Bailey Bunn also showed some toughness after suffering a fall during her balance beam routine. Bunn regrouped to post a score of 9.775 as the first Wildcat on the ground.
“She had a really bad fall on beam and was very limited in training,” Garrison said, also noting that Bunn retired from competing on vault. “Regardless of the fact that she didn’t have the best beam performance today, she was ready to step up.”
Bunn and Worley are the two returning British gymnasts who reached the NCAA Championship semi-finals last season as individuals: Bunn on balance beam and Worley on vault.
As a team last season, the UK failed to qualify for the NCAA Regional Finals. This season, the UK returns all 24 routines from this event, which produced a score of 197.600 that tied the UK program’s all-time record.
“We definitely have depth on vault and bars. We have a lot of people who are really strong on beam,” Garrison said. “Floor I think we could go a little deeper. . . we had some problems on the last passes this evening.
Kentucky is next in action Friday night at No. 6 Alabama, in another meetup to be televised on the SEC Network.
The UK’s next home game is January 29 at the Memorial Coliseum against No. 7 Missouri, a game which is also set to be broadcast on the SEC Network.
No. 13 Kentucky at No. 6 Alabama
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
TV: SEC Network