It took an epic performance but Utah will compete for a national championship
The Red Rocks defeated both defending champion Oklahoma and rival UCLA in the semifinals of the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, earning a berth in the national championship meet
FORT WORTH, Texas — Utah appeared to be in trouble. The serious kind.
Following the second rotation in the evening semifinal of the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, the Red Rocks trailed both defending champion Oklahoma and rival UCLA.
Utah needed to be better than at least one of those teams (plus Kentucky) at the end of the competition to advance to Saturday’s national championship meet.
The tension inside Dickies Arena was palpable as Utah headed to uneven bars, a good event for the Red Rocks this season, just not the one they are known for.
What did Utah do in the face of elimination? Because that was what was ahead for Utah unless it came through in an elite way on bars and then beam.
Well, the Red Rocks did what they have done all season. They found a way to win.
Team scores — Utah, 198.2250; Oklahoma, 198.1625; UCLA, 197.9125; Kentucky, 197.1250.
2023 NCAA individual champions
All-around — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 39.7625
Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 10.000
Floor exercise — Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 9.9875
Uneven bars — Jordan Chiles (UCLA); 10.000
Vault — Olivia Trautman (Oklahoma); 9.9500
Powered by two of their best outings on bars and on beam this season, Utah defeated not only Oklahoma, but also UCLA and Kentucky, winning their semifinal to secure a spot in the national championship meet.
Utah recorded a 198.2250, edging out second place finishing Oklahoma, which had a 198.1625. The Bruins were eliminated from the postseason after scoring a 197.9125.
“Just continue to be impressed with this group of athletes,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “With their competitive spirit and their ability to dig deep and never give up. To turn a corner and really push. It was evident tonight.
He added: “This is the grittiest win in my time at Utah. Definitely.”
A historic win too as senior Maile O’Keefe made an argument for being considered the greatest gymnast in Utah history.
O’Keefe won both the all-around championship and the balance beam championship, joining UCLA’s Jordan Chiles as the only gymnasts to win multiple NCAA championships this season.
O’Keefe now has won four individual national championships in her Utah career, only one less than the current program record holder — Missy Marlowe.
“It was amazingly unexpected,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe wasn’t the only standout Utah gymnast, though.
Across the board, particularly during the bars and beam rotations, the Red Rocks had some of their best performances of the season, with everything on the line.
On bars, where Utah finished with a 49.6750, the Red Rocks didn’t count a score lower than Sage Thompson’s 9.9125.
At the end of the third rotation, combined with UCLA struggling on vault, Utah surged from third place into second by more than a tenth of a point.
Then on beam, with UCLA competing on one of its best events (bars), Utah didn’t count a score lower than Amelie Morgan’s 9.8875, getting a perfect 10 from O’Keefe, plus a 9.9625 from Cristal Isa and a 9.9250 from Grace McCallum.
Utah finished with a 49.6875, the second best event score by any team on Thursday, behind only the 49.7125 that UCLA posted on floor.
If not for O’Keefe’s perfection on beam (her perfect 10 sealed a berth at the national championships for Utah), McCallum would have been the talk of the night.
After being sidelined with a hyperextended knee since Feb. 10, an injury suffered in Fort Worth at the Metroplex Challenge, McCallum returned to competition on Thursday and was nothing but impressive, scoring a 9.9500 on bars that was good enough for second place overall on that event, plus the 9.9250 on beam.
The later score pushed Utah ahead of Oklahoma in the standings, giving the Red Rocks their first win over Oklahoma since Jan. 14, 2022.
“The road here was tough,” McCallum said. “Getting hurt that late in season, I didn’t know if I could make it back in time for nationals.
“... It definitely wasn’t an easy road, but it was worth it.”
Utah wasn’t flawless by any means.
The Red Rocks started the competition with two solid rotations on floor and vault.
At this juncture of the season, considering the caliber of opponent that Utah faced, solid can be defeating, though.
Vault particularly left Utah wanting with landings proving a real problem for each of the six gymnasts who competed.
Utah’s high score was a 9.9000 from freshman Makenna Smith. By way of comparison, Oklahoma finished with three vaults scores of 9.9000 or better.
“It was the tale of two halves,” Farden said. “The first two events were good, solid. But the second two were brilliant. That is what pushed us over the edged and got us into the Final Four again.”
As he has many times this year, Farden attributed Utah’s success above all else to the chemistry of the team.
In Utah’s eyes, this year’s team is different. Their bond is something the Red Rocks haven’t had for awhile.
“It is their trust in each other, their confidence and their ability to do amazing gymnastics for each other,” Farden said.
Added McCallum: “Our team deserved to be here just as much as everybody else. “Everyone works so hard. We are enough and we deserve our spot.”
The national championship meet will be held on Saturday at 2 p.m. MDT at Dickies Arena, and will include Utah and Oklahoma, as well as Florida and LSU, the latter two teams advancing from the afternoon semifinal.
“The teams that qualified are incredible teams,” Oklahoma head coach KJ Kindler said. “It is going to come down to the nuts and bolts on that night. Every meet (in the postseason) I saw before, ‘Oh, this is the hardest meet.’ And then the next one is the hardest meet. And then the next one.
“It is so hard now with the parity in our sport. Anything can happen. Every meet is a little bit tougher, but now we are at the pinnacle. This is the last meet of the season, and some careers.”