Fort Worth, Texas • Utah’s gymnastics team has waited for two years to prove it could be a threat for the NCAA title.
Thanks to one of the wildest finishes in the NCAA Championships in recent memory, the Utes will get their chance.
Utah advanced to Saturday’s NCAA finals by overtaking LSU on the last rotation of their semifinal session Friday in Fort Worth.
NCAA Gymnastics Championships
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
Michigan, Florida, Utah, Oklahoma
After three rotations Friday, defending champion Oklahoma led with a 148.5625 followed by LSU (148.3875), Utah (148.0875) and Alabama (147.9875).
The drama was set with Utah finishing on bars, its weakest event, and LSU on the beam, the apparatus that gave the Tigers trouble when they lost the NCAA Regionals to the Utes two weeks ago.
The Utes weren’t thrown off their game by the pressure, if anything it made them better as they finished with a 49.5125 on the bars, led by a 9.95 from Maile O’Keefe and 9.9s from Cristal Isa and Emilie LeBlanc.
“I went into that routine not knowing if I would get a routine tomorrow,” O’Keefe said. “It was the best mindset to have.”
LSU couldn’t match the Utes, scoring 49.175 on the beam as several gymnasts had breaks.
Still, the meet was so close the Utes couldn’t celebrate until both the LSU and Alabama scores were finalized. When they were, the Utes piled into one another celebrating their presence in the finals.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Utah coach Tom Farden said. “I didn’t think I could hold my breath for five minutes but I did.”
The Utes compete at 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday against Oklahoma, Michigan and Florida.
O’Keefe’s effort on the uneven bars earned her a share of the national title. She also scored a 9.9625 to share a piece of the NCAA floor title.
Utah’s last uneven bars champion was Georgia Dabritz in 2015, and the last to win the floor was MyKayla Skinner in 2017.
The last Utah gymnast to win two national titles in the same championship was Theresa Kulikowski, who won the all-around title and beam in 1999.
“Her floor routine was a stunner,” Farden said. “That bar routine was the most precise she has done all year. She deserved those titles.”
Since the championships were canceled last year, this is just the second time the “Four on the Floor,” format is in use.
In 2019, the Utes finished a disappointing last place in their semifinal effort as they just didn’t have the physical talent or the mental toughness to handle the competition.
Friday was a totally different story.
Now the Utes have a chance to win their first national title since 1995. The Utes have said all along winning would be tough, they just wanted a chance.
“The whole mentality this weekend was nobody comes in here and out-toughs us,” Farden said. “It wasn’t an ideal start on balance beam, but this team never quit.”
Utah opened with a 49.25 on the beam, its third-lowest score of the year.
Isa and Alexia Burch had 9.875s to lead the team. O’Keefe, Utah’s standout beam worker who has been ranked No. 1 most of the year with a 9.975 national qualifying scoring average, had just a small break that led to a 9.8375 mark.
LSU (49.5, vault), Oklahoma (49.4, bars) and Alabama (49.2875, vault) all had better openings.
The Utes came back with a huge effort on the floor, scoring 49.6 with O’Keefe (9.9625) and Sydney Soloski (9.9375) leading the way.
It was enough for the Utes to trail second-place Oklahoma by just 0.075 at the midway mark. LSU led with a 99.0125 followed by Oklahoma (98.925), Utah (98.85) and Alabama (98.6).
The Utes needed a similar effort on the other power event, the vault. However, the vault has been inconsistent for the Utes in the latter part of the season. Friday turned out to be one of the lackluster days as the Utes scored only 49.2375 as they failed to break the 9.9 mark with any of their efforts.
Cammy Hall (9.875) and Lucy Stanhope (9.8625) led the Utes.
At that point it seemed like the Utes would miss the cut since the bars are their weak event.
But just as they’ve done so many times this year on the beam, the Utes lifted their game when they needed to most, producing their best bar set of the year to overtake LSU.
O’Keefe credited Soloski for her pep talk just before the bars.
“We were a little down on ourselves and she told we had one more event to show what we are worth and that pushed us over the edge,” O’Keefe said.
Over the edge and, as it turns out, right into the NCAA finals.
NCAA Gymnastics Championships
Session 1 results
Session 2 results
Individual NCAA champions
All-Around: Anastasia Webb (Oklahoma) 39.7875
Vault: Haleigh Bryant (LSU) and Anastasia Webb (Oklahoma) 9.975
Uneven bars: Maile O’Keefe (Utah) and Maya Bordas (Cal) 9.95
Balance beam: Luisa Blanco (Alabama) 9.9625
Floor: Anastasia Webb (Oklahoma), Lexi Graber (Alabama), Maile O’Keefe (Utah) 9.9625