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In Top 3 showdown, Utah gymnastics breaks 198 barrier, narrowly defeats rival UCLA

The Red Rocks defeated the Bruins 198.075 to 198.025. Freshman Abby Paulson won the meet with a perfect 10 on Utah’s final beam routine

Utah gymnast Abby Paulson competes on the beam as Utah hosts Kentucky to kick off the 2020 season in the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. 
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Following Utah gymnastics’ victory over Oregon State on Feb. 21, a trio of Red Rocks — senior Kim Tessen and juniors Sydney Soloski and Alexia Burch — sat down to do interviews with assembled media members in the bowels of the Huntsman Center.

Their answers were as varied as the questions asked, but as each gymnast spoke, their words began to reverberate with an intense competitive fire. It became abundantly clear to all who listened that these Red Rocks want nothing more than to be the very best.

They weren’t on that Friday night in Salt Lake City, but Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, they might have been.

At the very least, Utah was the best it has been all season. The Red Rocks defeated rival UCLA 198.075 to 198.025 in the Pac-12 showdown between two teams that entered the day tied at No. 3 in the national rankings.

Utah scored season-highs on balance beam (49.775), uneven bars (49.600) and floor exercise (49.475) and saw multiple gymnasts record new career-highs and/or put on the best meets of their collegiate careers.

None fell into that latter category more than freshman Abby Paulson, who scored a perfect 10 on balance beam to clinch the victory for the undefeated Utes. Then there was Cristal Isa, Adrienne Randall, Burch, Emilie LeBlanc and Maile O’Keefe, all of whom tied or set new career highs in the win, all with scores of 9.90 or better.

Not to be overshadowed, Tessen scored 9.90 or better on both her events, while Missy Reinstadtler and Soloski added scores above 9.90 themselves.

Utah counted only four scores in the 9.8-range the entire meet, three of which came on vault (49.225).

The contest, and with it conference bragging rights, came down to the final rotation, with the rivals neck-and-neck after three events.

Utah was on balance beam, its best event this season, and UCLA on floor exercise, where the Bruins are ranked No. 1 in the nation. UCLA actually pulled ahead early in the final rotation, thanks to a leadoff routine from Nora Flately that earned a 9.925. The Bruins then had three gymnasts score a 9.975, Nia Dennis, Gracie Kramer and Kyla Ross.

The Red Rocks had answer after answer after answer, however, courtesy of Burch (9.950), Isa (9.950), O’Keefe (9.90), Randall (9.975) and finally, Paulson. The freshman from Anoka, Minnesota had scored a 9.95 on beam earlier this season, but with the meet in the balance, she delivered Utah’s first perfect 10 of the season.

The score clinched the win, Utah’s second straight in Pauley Pavilion — the Red Rocks beat UCLA there in 2018 — and gave the Utes the country’s best beam score of the year (it was also a program record).

After the letdown win over Oregon State, Utah head coach Tom Farden all but promised that his team could and would be better.

“We are better than that and we will fix it,” he said. “We will get better.” He also cautioned that his team’s response would not be limited to their words. It would include the level of their gymnastics against UCLA.

“We will see what their response is,” he said.

Consider it a near perfect response.