FORT WORTH, Tex. (ABC4 Sports) – After a late rally on the bars, the Utah gymnastics team now has a chance at its first national championship in 26 years.
The Red Rocks came up with a strong performance on its final routine on the bars, to finish in second place behind Oklahoma and ahead of Alabama and LSU to advance to the NCAA Finals in Forth Worth, Texas.
Utah will compete against Florida, Oklahoma and Michigan Saturday at 1:30 p.m on ABC4 for its first title since 1995.
Utah played from behind the entire meet after falling to fourth place from an uncharacteristic beam set. The floor team exploded for a 49.6 to cut the gap, but only gained enough ground to sit in third place after floor and then through vault’s rotation. The Utes needed to overcome a three-tenth deficit to catch the current second-place team as Utah headed to the uneven bars.
Abby Paulson started the rotation with a 9.825 and the lineup took it from there. Alani Sabado then tied her career high on the biggest stage, scoring a 9.875, which was then followed by a career-high 9.8875 from Alexia Burch, Emilie LeBlanc tied her career mark as well with a 9.90 before Maile O’Keefe and Cristal Isa put the exclamation marks on the rotation with a 9.95 and 9.90, respectively.
“It wasn’t the ideal start on balance beam but they just never quit,” said head coach Tom Farden. “The whole mentality for this weekend was nobody comes in here and out-toughs us, mentally and physically and we’re just going to grind this one out and that’s what it felt like as a coach watching, and we stumbled a little bit on balance beam but then I thought we got our footing on the next three events.”
O’Keefe’s career-tying mark earned her a second event victory of the night to become a national champion on the uneven bars and on floor after she recorded a 9.9625 on floor. Utah’s season-high 49.5125 on bars pushed the team score to 197.600 – just enough to walk away in the top-two and advance to tomorrow’s final round after finishing 0.025 ahead of Alabama. Utah’s bar lineup posted the highest team bar score of the session despite the uneven bars team coming into the meet ranked the lowest among the four squads.
Utah started the night on the balance beam and did not produce what the set had been so consistently hitting all year. Utah found itself in fourth place after the beam team recorded a 49.250. The Utes hit all six routines, but could not ring in any scores above the 9.90 mark. Burch starting the group with a 9.875, which went on to tie for a team-high with Isa two routines later. Adrienne Randall posted a 9.85, while O’Keefe tallied a 9.8375. Lucy Stanhope and Paulson each totaled 9.8125s.
The floor team cut the gap after exploding for a 49.6, but remained in third place. Isa started the rotation with a 9.90, while Paulson added a 9.8875 and Stanhope tallied a 9.875. Utah then received three big scores to cap off the set from Jaedyn Rucker, O’Keefe and Sydney Soloski. Rucker earned a 9.915, while Soloski posted a 9.9375. O’Keefe scored a 9.9625 that went on to earn a share of the floor title – the first of two titles for the Ute sophomore on the night.
Before Utah took the night away on bars, the vaulters put up a 49.2375 in the third rotation. O’Keefe led off the group with a 9.8125, while Utah’s highest mark came in the second spot from Cammy Hall with a 9.875. Isa posted a 9.8375 and Stanhope followed with a 9.8625. Rucker then added a 9.8375, while Burch rounded out the group with a 9.8250.
Along with O’Keefe’s individual victories to become a two-time individual national champion, Utah also collected NCAA All-American honors following the day’s competition. O’Keefe became a first-team NCAA All-American on bars and floor, along with second-team honors in the all-around. Also earning second-team honors were Soloski on floor, along with Isa and LeBlanc on the uneven bars. Each event’s top four finishers by session earn first team honors, while the fifth through eighth place finishers earn second team honors.
The Utes will begin the NCAA Finals on bars, followed by beam, floor and vault.