Dominant Utes win Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships

Utah wins the conference meet for the first time since 2017, with Cal second and UCLA third.

Two views could be taken of the last few performances by the Utah gymnastics team, that the disappointing showings would be a great wake-up call going into the Pac-12 Championships or they signified the Utes were past their peak and were on their way down at the wrong time of the year.

Well, guess we know which theory was right.

Utah’s gymnastics team broke out of its slump to put on a dominating performance Saturday to win the Pac-12 Championship at the Maverik Center with a 197.725. California overtook UCLA in the last rotation to finish second with a 197.375 while the Bruins settled for third (196.725) and Arizona State was fourth (196.375). The Utes last won the conference meet in 2017.

“It was a great night,” Utah coach Tom Farden said. “I’m super proud of the team and athletes and staff. It takes a village to win a conference championship, and I’m feeling really grateful right now.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cristal Isa reacts after competing on the uneven bars, for Utah, in the PAC-12 Championships at the Maverik Center, on Saturday, March 20, 2021.

UCLA, which won in 2018 and 2019, was the closest competitor to the Utes in the first half of the meet and actually led Utah 49.525-49.325 after the first rotation.

There was no sense of panic among the Utes, though, as they assumed their opening event on the bars would be their low score, even if it was a season best.

With the bars behind them, the Utes put on the kind of performance they’ve said they were capable of having as Utah posted one score after another of 9.9 or higher. Altogether, the Utes finished with 13 scores of 9.9 or higher, a tally of which Farden has been stressing lately.

The Utes absolutely dominated on the balance beam, scoring a 49.675 with Cristal Isa, Maile O’Keefe and Abby Paulson all scoring 9.95.

That mark was good enough to put the Utes ahead of UCLA 99-98.95. That beam performance, as impressive as it was, wasn’t surprising given the Utes’ talent on the apparatus the last two years.

What was surprising was Utah’s ability to match that score on the floor. There, O’Keefe, Jaedyn Rucker and Sydney Soloski all had 9.95s, giving Utah a comfortable margin of 148.675 to UCLA’s 148.3 going into the final rotation.

Vault was disappointing, with the Utes scoring only 49.05, but by then the Utes were leading comfortably and had the meet all but locked up.

O’Keefe has had such a strong season Saturday’s efforts seemed almost mundane for her as she scored 9.95s on everything but the vault, where she had a 9.85. It wasn’t until the final scores were tallied that it was evident how great a night she had as she won the all-around and earned a piece of every individual title except for the vault.

The immediate reaction to the Utes’ win was it showed the Utes indeed can step up their gymnastics in the big meets, just as they said they could.

“They were hungry,” Farden said. “I’ve said the last two weeks of practice have been good and solid and confident, and they fed off that tonight in a tight competition. They had a chip on their shoulder and something to prove.”

In terms of the program, it was a big win because the conference meet has eluded the Utes in recent years. After watching UCLA win back-to-back titles, the Utes thought they would get their shot last year after going undefeated, only to have the postseason canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Now the Utes not only can enjoy a sweep of the regular season and conference meet titles, they can look forward to the NCAA Regional meet in two weeks with some renewed confidence.

Really, losing Saturday’s meet might have been a devastating enough loss to send the Utes spiraling down the rankings and out of the national picture.

Saturday’s win puts the Utes in a totally new position, given the way they dominated.

Yes, the meet got off to a shaky start when Abby Paulson fell off the bars in the leadoff spot, but the Utes hardly seemed rattled as they put together so many strong routines the expected close meet hinged on being all-out rout.

It was the kind of meet the Utes not only wanted to have, but needed if they wanted to be taken seriously as the NCAAs loom.

Individual Results

Vault: Sekai Wright (UCLA) 9.95

Uneven bars: Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Cristal Isa (Utah), Margzetta Frazier (UCLA) 9.95

Balance beam: Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Cristal Isa (Utah), Abby Paulson (Utah) 9.95

Floor: Maile O’Keefe (Utah), Chae Campbell (UCLA), Kyana George (Cal), Pauline Tratz (UCLA), Jaedyn Rucker (Utah), Sydney Soloski (Utah), Kyla Bryant (Stanford) 9.95

All-around: Maile O’Keefe (Utah) 39.7

Team Results

1. Utah 197.725

2. California 197.375

3. UCLA 196.725

4. Arizona State 196.375

5. Oregon State 195.625

6. Arizona 195.4

7. Stanford 195.175

8. Washington 194.4