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A perfect 10 and the second-best score by any team this season? Yeah, everything went right for Utah in win over Washington

The Red Rocks defeated the Huskies 197.475 to 193.500 to improve to 5-1 on the season, 2-0 in the Pac-12

Maile O’Keefe performs her performs her Beam routine as Utah and Washington compete in an NCAA gymnastics match at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. #4 Utah won 197.475 to 193.300.
Maile O’Keefe performs her performs her beam routine as Utah and Washington compete in an NCAA gymnastics match at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. #4 Utah won 197.475 to 193.300.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Following Utah’s victory over Arizona last weekend, sophomore Maile O’Keefe was not even a little bit shy about it. As good as the Red Rocks were against the GymCats — Utah scored its first 197 of the season in the win — they knew they could be better.

“We are really happy because this was the highest team score of the season, though obviously not our best,” O’Keefe had said. “It is a good step.”

Saturday night at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, with a smattering of family and friends in attendance, Utah gymnastics took an even better step.

Utah defeated Washington 197.475 to 193.300, improving to 5-1 on the year and 2-0 in the Pac-12. The Red Rocks dominated from start to finish in what was their best and most complete outing of the season.

It also happened to be the best score by any team in the country this season not named Florida.

“Another big step for the program,” Utah head coach Tom Farden said. “We thought that there were some big shining moments.”

None were bigger than the perfect 10 scored by O’Keefe on balance beam, the first perfect score of her career. O’Keefe also won the all-around and has quickly become Utah’s most valuable gymnast in only her second season.

She wasn’t alone on Saturday, though. There were standout performances aplenty. Senior Sydney Soloski won floor for the third consecutive week thanks to a career-high 9.975. Cristal Isa claimed the uneven bars title with a 9.925, while Alexia Burch scored a season-high 9.925 on vault to win that event.

Other Red Rocks, such as Lucy Stanhope and Abby Paulson, set or matched their career-highs.

It was just that kind of night for Utah.

“It was another strong performance,” Farden said.

Defining moment

This one is about as self-explanatory as they come.

Perfect routines that are rewarded with a perfect score are a rarity in college gymnastics. Last season, only two Red Rocks — Paulson and Kim Tessen — managed to earn a perfect 10. The year before, only Makenna Merrell-Giles and MyKayla Skinner did it.

Perfect 10s just don’t happen all that often, so when they do, they outshine just about everything else.

That was the case with O’Keefe’s beam routine. Utah didn’t need perfection from its sophomore star, but she obliged anyway with the best routine of her career, both in terms of the execution of her skills, which are about as difficult as are found in collegiate gymnastics, and in her performance.

“I would argue (it was my best routine ever) because my performance quality was a lot better throughout my dance,” O’Keefe said. “It was little things like looking at the judges, smiling, just being a tad bit more confident.”

Farden added aggressive to that list, something he believed his entire beam lineup showed after senior Emilie LeBlanc fell in the leadoff position.

“I didn’t see any tentativeness,” he said. “We couldn’t be prouder with how aggressive and determined (they were) after a setback. There is a lot of self-satisfaction that our athletes are performing at this level.”

Area for improvement

In a meet in which Utah finished with a score that was better than what any other team in the country has managed this season, save for No. 1-ranked Florida, it might feel a little callous to focus on the need to improve.

But, as good as the Red Rocks were, there is room to be even better. Specifically, it is the middle of the bars and floor lineups that could use some work.

Both rotations began with brilliant performances by Paulson (more on her in a bit), who scored a career-high 9.85 on bars and career-high 9.90 on floor. Immediately afterward, though, Utah got worse, not better, which is the opposite of how lineups are supposed to work.

Ideally, rotations get stronger as they go, with scores rising, not falling. And yet, after Paulson’s routines, the Red Rocks took multiple steps back on both events before the gymnasts in the latter part of the rotations turned things around.

(You could argue a similar thing happened on beam too, though an event score of 49.575 kind of eliminates any room for critique).

Momentum is of incredible importance in a meet, particularly when a team is trying for even higher scores, and multiple times Saturday night Utah threw it away.

“It does hinge on those interior lineup athletes to keep that momentum going,” Farden said. “That is something that is learned.”

Lineups are still in flux, but with February just around the corner, there is an expectation that they will become more solidified. That could — the Red Rocks hope should — have a positive effect on the middle of lineups.

“There are still opportunities for athletes,” Farden said, “and we have to do a better job on some of those interior athletes.”

Area for excitement

Utah’s beam team is back.

Last season, the Red Rocks were one of the nation’s best teams on beam, No. 2 to be exact. The lineup of LeBlanc, Burch, Adrienne Randall, Isa, O’Keefe and Paulson was as deadly as they come.

After all, it was Utah’s beamers that propelled the team to road wins over rival UCLA and later Washington in the meet that determined the inaugural Pac-12 regular season championship.

Through the first three meets of this season, however, Utah’s excellence on beam was lacking. Against Oklahoma, the Red Rocks all but collapsed on the event.

Against the Huskies, though, Utah finally looked like itself on beam, with five athletes scoring a 9.85 or better, led by O’Keefe’s perfect 10 and a 9.95 from Paulson.

“Wow, that was incredible,” Farden said. “Emilie had a little mistake tonight, an uncharacteristic one, but then the next five... To see Maile get a perfect 10 and then Abby have one judge give her a 10, that was really great.”

As great as Utah was on beam — the 49.575 was the second-highest score on beam by any team this season — Paulson’s overall performance might have been even better, or at least more important.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Paulson hadn’t looked like herself. An All-American on beam, she was expected to be one of Utah’s best gymnasts this year, but prior to Saturday, she hadn’t been. Beam is her strongest event, and in back-to-back weeks, she’d struggled.

That changed against Washington, as Paulson was at her best on every one of her three events.

It was a long time coming and a much needed change for the Red Rocks.

“She did an incredible job,” Farden said. “Abby was really determined tonight. The chip on her shoulder was a little bit bigger and she was aggressive and determined. Thats the Abby that we need to have every weekend.”