With Pac-12 title on the line, Utes get their ‘gutsiest win in a long time’

The Red Rocks earned yet another championship Saturday night.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cristal Isa on the bars as Utah hosts California, NCAA gymnastics in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Utah uneven bars wonder Cristal Isa had a break in her routine, UCLA phenom Jordan Chiles fell off the balance beam and Cal, which is oh so good on the uneven bars, had so many struggles it couldn’t come close to hitting its average.

Halfway through the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships at the Maverik Center Saturday, it was clear unpredictability was the theme of the night.

Who, if anyone, was going to survive one of the wildest Pac-12 Championships in recent years to be crowned champion?

In the end, it was the team with the super close locker room, according to Utah coach Tom Farden.

“Absolute team chemistry,” he said of the Utes’ third straight Pac-12 championship after his team posted a 197.925 to finish just ahead of UCLA (197.85). Cal was third (197.825), followed by Oregon State (197.2), Arizona State (196.7), Arizona and Washington (196.375) and Stanford (195.875).

The Utes used a determination to not let one another down as they climbed out of third place after the first rotation to the top of the podium.

“The whole team dynamic works on trust,” said Maile O’Keefe, who paced the Utes with a 39.675 in the all-around.

“This is one of the hardest championships we have won,” Farden added.

O’Keefe had 9.95s on the balance beam and floor, a 9.925 on the bars and a 9.85 as the vault leadoff.

The only gymnast better was Oregon State’s Olympian Jade Carey, who won the all-around with a 39.75. Carey’s performance was as jaw droopingly clean as ever. O’Keefe’s performance was the ballast in a topsy turvy competition for the Utes.

“She set the tone with what she did tonight,” Farden said. “Sometimes she is too hard on herself but she settled in after she dropped that dismount on bars. She was in a good space tonight. When she hit that vault, it eased the athletes and everyone saw that and they ripped it from there.”

Not surprisingly the meet came down to the final rotation with the Utes leading with a 148.5 while UCLA was second with a 148.25, Cal was third with a 148.2 and Oregon State was fourth with 148.125.

There, the Utes held off UCLA by posting a 49.425 on the vault, led by a 9.925 from Abby Brenner, who took home the individual vault title. The Bruins finished with a 49.6 on floor, including a 9.975 from Chiles, but it just wasn’t enough to overcome the Utes.

In addition to the last two titles, the Utes also won in 2017, 2015 and 2014. The championships weren’t held in 2020 due to COVID.

“This one was special,” O’Keefe said. “Obviously we were the two seed but we got to end on an event for us that was really good for us as a team.”

The Utes put themselves in position to win with one of their oddest balance beam efforts of the year as both Makenna Smith (9.725) and Abby Paulson (9.775) had big breaks and others had smaller miscues. Still, Kara Eaker, Isa and O’Keefe all earned 9.95s to give the Utes a 49.525.

O’Keefe’s effort was notable considering she fell off the beam in Utah’s last meet while Eaker sat out the last two with a concussion.

She wasn’t cleared to compete until Friday.

The effort moved the Utes into second with a 98.9 while Oregon State hung onto first with a 99.0 and UCLA and Cal both had 98.75.

The Utes moved ahead with a 49.6 on the floor, led by O’Keefe’s 9.95 and 9.925 from Jaylene Gilstrap and Smith.

“This is the gutsiest win in a long time,” Farden said.

Pac-12 Championships

Team Scores

Utah 197.925

UCLA 197.85

Cal 197.825

Oregon State 197.2

Arizona State 196.7

Arizona and Washington 196.375

Stanford 195.875

Individual Winners

Vault: Abby Brenner (Utah) 9.925

Uneven bars: Jordan Chiles (UCLA) 9.975

Balance beam: Mya Lauzon (Cal) and Jade Carey (Oregon State) 9.975

Floor: Jordan Chiles (UCLA) and Jade Carey (Oregon State) 9.975

All-around: Jade Carey (Oregon State) 39.75