Selena Harris' leadership, perfect 10 helps UCLA gymnastics 'level up' despite loss to Utah

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 19: Selena Harris of the UCLA Bruins reacts.
UCLA's Selena Harris celebrates after scoring a perfect 10 in the vault during a dual meet against Utah at Pauley Pavilion on Monday. (Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

Selena Harris landed on the blue mat like a dart fired into a board. The UCLA sophomore was so stunned by her flawless vault that she almost forgot to celebrate.

“It’s about time,” Harris deadpanned.

Harris scored her second consecutive perfect score on vault, but the performance wasn’t enough to save UCLA from its sixth consecutive dual meet loss to Pac-12 rival Utah on Monday. The Utes charged back from a 0.425-point deficit after two events to win 197.300-196.975 at Pauley Pavilion as the Bruins stumbled to their second-lowest beam score of the season.

After No. 8 UCLA gave up the lead on the third rotation, Utah’s Maile O’Keefe squashed a final-event comeback attempt with a score of 9.975 on beam that put the meet out of reach by the time Nya Reed took the floor as UCLA’s final competitor. The Bruins didn’t record a beam score higher than the 9.825 from Ciena Alipio and Emily Lee, letting No. 4 Utah jump ahead by two-tenths of a point going into the final event.

Lee and Brooklyn Moors both stepped out of bounds on floor, costing UCLA two critical tenths, but Harris, competing fifth, scored a 9.95 that momentarily tied the overall score.

The reigning Pac-12 freshman of the year has a knack for clutch performances. She clinched UCLA’s ticket to the NCAA championships last season with a 10 on vault at the NCAA regional final. It was the first perfect score of her college career.

Less than a year later, the Las Vegas native has had back-to-back perfect scores on vault. A week after notching UCLA’s first perfect score of the season at Oregon State, she anchored UCLA’s best vault rotation of the year as the Bruins scored 49.525 points to begin the meet. Teammates enveloped her in hugs when her perfect score flashed on the screen, securing the team's second-highest vault score of UCLA coach Janelle McDonald’s tenure.

“Vault was definitely not a strong suit last year, and to be able to come in and be able to raise that bar to be very high is amazing,” said Reed, a graduate transfer who scored 9.85 in the event Monday. “We’ve been working sticks like crazy.”

UCLA's Selena Harris performs on the vault during a dual meet against Utah on Monday.
UCLA's Selena Harris performs on the vault during a dual meet against Utah on Monday. (Tracy Gitnick / Associated Press)

With the way Harris works in the gym, the Bruins are expecting more perfect scores from the sophomore. McDonald said Harris asks for feedback every day at practice, trying to identify every half-tenth deduction and fixing each mistake.

Harris' work ethic, confidence and steady scores have made her a natural leader for the Bruins, especially as they compete without two-time individual NCAA champion Jordan Chiles, who deferred her enrollment while seeking a spot in the Olympics. Junior Emma Malabuyo also missed the meet while competing internationally in Olympic qualifying, leaving Harris to step up into a role she’s learning to embrace.

“I can see everyone's engaged, like OK, we do have this, because you got it,” Harris said. “I have my feet grounded, I feel more comfortable, I like having my team with me on my side.”

Harris said it took until this season to fully buy into the team concept of college gymnastics. After a lifetime of competing as an individual at the Junior Olympic level, Harris struggled to open up to her teammates. When the Bruins were eliminated from the NCAA championships last year, finishing third in a hotly contested semifinal, Harris sulked alone, sitting outside of the team’s corral.

Read more: Inside UCLA gymnast Emma Malabuyo's push to juggle classes and qualify for the Olympics

This week, she was right in the middle of the team’s huddle after beam. The Bruins let stingy judging dictate their energy, McDonald said of the team’s 48.875-point total on the event. Heading into floor with a two-tenths deficit, Harris encouraged her teammates to celebrate every moment and keep up their energy. It was the second consecutive meet that Harris had taken on the vocal leadership role.

“My heart smiles when she does it,” McDonald said. “Because I think a year ago, she was just trying to figure it out and figure out how to transition from being a great competitor to being a great teammate. … She's really blossomed into that teammate. It's important when some of your top athletes become leaders, it really helps your team level up.”

Get the best, most interesting and strangest stories of the day from the L.A. sports scene and beyond from our newsletter The Sports Report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.