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Season-best outing not enough as Utah gymnastics falls to rival UCLA in Pac-12 showdown

Teammates cheer as Utah's Sydney Soloski competes on the floor during a meet against UCLA at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.
Teammates cheer as Utah's Sydney Soloski competes on the floor during a meet against UCLA at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Red Rocks couldn’t have asked for a better outing.

Whether it be MyKayla Skinner, who scored a 9.925 or better on every event, Sydney Soloski, Hunter Dula, Alexia Burch, Kari Lee, MaKenna Merrell-Giles, Adrienne Randall, Kim Tessen or Macey Roberts, all of whom matched career- or season-high scores, Utah’s gymnastics team was at its finest Saturday afternoon in the Huntsman Center.

The 197.625 scored was a season-high for Utah, the best score the team had mustered since it registered a 198.150 on Senior Night a season ago, 344 days to be exact.

“That was a heck of an outing,” Utah co-head coach Tom Farden said. “That was our most complete meet to this point.”

Also at their best, however, in front of a sold-out and boisterous arena of 15,558, were the rival UCLA Bruins.

On this particular occasion, UCLA’s best was better than Utah’s.

UCLA defeated Utah 198.025-197.625 Saturday. Bruins star Kyla Ross claimed the all-around title with a 39.775, while Skinner led the Utes with a 39.750, her finest all-around performance of the season.

“This was two great teams going head-to-head, head-to-head, head-to-head, doing their best gymnastics,” UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field said. “It was the best gymnastics of the season for both of us.”

The loss stung for the Utes, the hyper-competitive Skinner in particular — “She’s not Jimmy Connors, but she is passionate,” Farden said — but the season-best outing helped alleviate any immediate pain.

“Overall, super proud of the team,” said Farden. “That was tough competition. That was a tough eight days of competition, but we wanted to challenge them.”

From the get-go it was apparent that UCLA would be the greatest challenge of the year for the Red Rocks. The Bruins opened the meet with a strong 49.550 on uneven bars, a set that included a perfect 10 by Ross.

The Utes weren’t too shabby themselves on their opening event, however, as the team earned a 49.450 on vault.

Keying their success were Merrell-Giles, Skinner and Tessen, all of whom scored a 9.9 or better.

It was Burch’s vault, a 9.850, that was a real difference-maker, per Farden, as it brought the Huntsman Center to life.

“As soon as Lexi plunked that vault down, that third vault, the place just erupted,” he said. “It just kept going and going after that. We are so proud of our fans, the fanbase, and that energy absolutely helped. It was that extra boost of confidence.”

Utah was no less impressive on bars, with a 49.400, the team’s third-best showing this year. Skinner was the highlight, as she is often is, with a 9.950.

And yet, the Utes trailed after two events as UCLA racked up a 49.425 on vault.

That sent the Red Rocks to their weakest event, balance beam, trailing.

A poor performance would have surely ended the meet there, but Utah rose to the occasion.

The Red Rocks put on their finest beam performance of the year, which included a 9.950 by Skinner.

Burch, Soloski and Randall each set or matched season highs — “It felt really good to hit a routine that I knew I could do,” Burch said — while Lee posted the best leadoff score by any Ute this year.

“It was really nice to see beam come out like that,” Farden said. “That was way more indicative of what I see in practice every day. To me, that was the shining event.”

The 49.375 scored put the team in position to win the meet on floor exercise.

A pair of uncharacteristic mistakes, by Randall and Merrell-Giles, put an end to that dream.

“That was not my best,” said Merrell-Giles. “I honestly don’t know what happened.”

“We had two breaks,” added Farden. “We had a couple of 9.7s and those were not characteristic of those gymnasts. If we want to be able to go toe-to-toe with everyone in the country, which is our goal, we have to make sure we let the gymnastics happen.”

Still, it was an outing to be remembered.

“We finally put all four events together, which is a good step in the right direction,” said Lee. “Now, we have a little fire under our butt. We are going to come back. We’ve figured it out and we are only going to go up from here.”

“UCLA had the fire because we beat them on their home turf last year,” Skinner added. “At Pac-12s, we are coming for you. Better watch out.”