Utah gymnasts post season-best score, take third at NCAAs

The Red Rocks earn a 197.9875 total but come in behind Michigan and Oklahoma.

(Matt Strasen | AP) Utah's Emilie LeBlanc performs on the uneven bars during the NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday, April 17, 2021.

Utah’s gymnastics team didn’t win a national title Saturday, but any immediate disappointment in missing out on the hardware will no doubt be replaced by optimism for the future.

The Utes did what they wanted to do, prove they could battle right along with the upper echelon of collegiate gymnastics on the sport’s biggest day, scoring a season-high 197.9875 to finish third.

NCAA Championship

Final Scores

1. Michigan 198.25

2. Oklahoma 198.1625

3. Utah 197.9875

4. Florida 197.1375

Michigan led from the start and won its first national title with a school-record 198.25, while defending champion Oklahoma was second with a 198.1625. Florida, which shockingly suffered two falls on its best event, the balance beam, finished fourth with a 197.1375.

“I feel like we really maxed out as a team this year as far as peaking at the right time,” Utah coach Tom Farden said. “To reach their potential and score a season high with just nine scholarship athletes is incredible. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Michigan joins UCLA, Florida, Oklahoma, Alabama, Utah and Georgia as the only teams to win the NCAA title.

Michigan gymnasts celebrate with the national championship trophy after the NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, Saturday, April 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Strasen)

Utah’s last title came in 1995, but considering the team went from finishing seventh in 2019 to Saturday’s effort, fans can only believe the last two seasons mark a step up for the program.

Since 2019, the Utes have suffered just one regular-season loss (at Oklahoma) and won two regular-season Pac-12 championships, the 2021 Pac-12 championship meet and the 2021 NCAA regional title.

Saturday’s effort was Utah’s highest placing at the NCAAs since finishing second to Florida in 2015.

If the Utes’ consolation prize Saturday was a strong foundation for great things to come, then so be it.

So many times in recent years the Utes have suffered mediocre performances at the NCAAs, but on Saturday the Utes had one of their best efforts of the year. Unfortunately for the Utes, so did Michigan and Oklahoma.

The Utes hit all of their routines and didn’t suffer any drops in performance, unlike some recent meets.

“This team started to believe they could be in that elite group of teams,” Farden said. “Every team sets a goal of winning a national title and this team continues to makes steps toward that. Nothing is guaranteed but we feel like we have a strong nucleus.”

The Utes opened with a solid effort on the uneven bars, scoring 49.425 with Maile O’Keefe (9.9375) and Cristal Isa (9.9) leading the way.

The Utes found out just how tough the meet was going to be when they scored one of the highest marks on the balance beam in school history, a 49.7, but remained in third after the second rotation. The beam score included three 9.9375s from Isa, Abby Paulson and Adrienne Randall and a 9.9875 from O’Keefe. The effort was just short of the school record 49.775 earned at UCLA last year.

Despite the great score, the Utes still trailed at the halfway mark with Michigan (99.275) and Oklahoma (99.1375) ahead of the Utes (99.125) and Florida (96.3125).

The Utes posted a 49.475 on the floor, setting up the final rotation showdown with Michigan leading at 148.7625 followed by Oklahoma (148.625), Utah (148.6) and Florida (147.675).

The Utes have had some trouble finishing on vault this year but didn’t falter Saturday, scoring 49.3875 led by a 9.9875 from Jaedyn Rucker and a 9.9375 from Alexia Burch.

Farden noted there were a couple steps on landings, but the mistakes were minor and didn’t take away from the Utes’ overall performance.

“I told them coming in this was the pinnacle of what they’ve been working for,” he said. “We had a great bar set and an incredible beam and floor was strong. We needed a couple more vaults to land, but we were right in it to the end and that is what you hope. They didn’t let up.”

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