Utah gymnastics rallies for impressive road win against rival UCLA Bruins

Utah’s Maile O’Keefe reacts after her floor routine during an NCAA gymnastics meet against UCLA, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Los Angeles.
Utah’s Maile O’Keefe reacts after her floor routine during an NCAA gymnastics meet against UCLA, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Los Angeles. | Tracy Gitnick, Associated Press

Trailing by nearly half a point (.425), on the road in a hostile environment (Pauley Pavilion) against their fiercest rivals (the UCLA Bruins), Utah gymnastics could have given in to the pressure Monday afternoon and left Los Angeles with a loss.

The Red Rocks could’ve looked at their performance after two events (uneven bars and vault) and decided that the showdown between the No. 4-ranked Utes and No. 8-ranked Bruins wasn’t going to go their way.

They could’ve decided it was a lost meet — those happen every year — and set their focus instead on Stanford, which comes to Salt Lake City Friday night.


Team scores — Utah, 197.300; UCLA, 196.975

Event winners

  • All-around — Selena Harris (UCLA); 39.675.

  • Balance beam — Maile O’Keefe (Utah); 9.975.

  • Floor exercise — Selena Harris (UCLA); 9.950.

  • Uneven bars — Selena Harris (UCLA); 9.950.

  • Vault — Selena Harris (UCLA); 10.0.

Utah could’ve done a lot of things, but what it actually did spoke volumes.

The Red Rocks rallied in impressive fashion, with a 49.500 on floor exercise and a 49.400 on balance beam, and defeated the Bruins 197.300 to 196.975.

The score improved Utah’s national qualifying score (NQS), and kept the Red Rocks’ dominance over the Bruins intact (Utah has won 9 of the last 10 meetings).

Most importantly though, Utah’s performance proved the Red Rocks are made of the type of stuff that leads to championships. Even if the team wasn’t close to perfect.

“This team never gave up,” Utah head coach Carly Dockendorf said. “They fought all the way until the end. We didn’t let a score affect us or gave up. Just kept doing our gymnastics and we stayed focused on us and actually turned it up a notch.

“... I think it is really important for us to remember we are capable of doing that. And to be here in someone else’s house and still be able to come up a victory against a really incredible team speaks volumes about the strength of Utah gymnastics this year.”

Defining moment

No single routine won the meet for Utah, although Maile O’Keefe’s event winning 9.975 on beam to close out the meet came close.

But, for all intents and purposes, Utah’s floor rotation was the defining rotation of the competition.

Without it, Utah doesn’t rally for victory.

Trailing by more than four tenths of a point after disappointing showings on bars and vault (Utah scored a 49.200 on both events), the Red Rocks took to the floor and did what UCLA usually does — that is put on a show.

The lowest score Utah counted on floor was a 9.875, a score registered by freshman Ella Zirbes. Every other routine counted scored at least a 9.90, as the Red Rocks answered the call again and again and again.

O’Keefe, Abby Paulson, Jaylene Gilstrap and Grace McCallum. Name a gymnast and they competed a great floor routine.

On the road, in a hostile environment.

“We gave the floor that we know how to do,” Dockendorf said. “... We fought for every single routine, and every single landing and kept our confidence to the very last routine.”

Standout routines

There were no shortage of notable performances, even with struggles.

Take Amelie Morgan.

In her final meet before heading off to England for a month, Morgan was excellent. Her 9.875 on bars was one of the lone bright spots for Utah on that event and her 9.90 on vault was a team-high score.

It also gave Utah the little boost that it needed entering the floor rotation.

Then there was Paulson, who once again didn’t score below a 9.90 in either of her routines.

The fifth-year senior has been the most consistent Utah gymnast this season, weekly contributing scores in the 9.9 range on multiple events time and again.

Doing at UCLA was a little bit more notable, only because of the environment.

“The UCLA is always the most exciting,” Paulson said. “I actually love Pauley Pavilion. I think it is a very fun environment. There are a lot of sparkles and confetti. It is loud and exciting. So I really enjoy coming here. It is one of my favorite meets, every time that we’ve come.”

O’Keefe struggled on bars, but was elite on beam and strong on floor, as befits her standing as the reigning NCAA all-around champion.

Gilstrap had arguably her best floor routine this season — for the second week in a row.

There were also notable outing for Ashley Glynn on vault, who competed arguably the second-best vault of her Utah career. McCallum was a standout on floor, her tumbling seeming more explosive than usual.

Then there was Makenna Smith who didn’t have a normal performance in the all-around, but was elite on bars to start the meet.

Adjustments to make

There were clear and obvious miscues for Utah, especially on bars and vault.

On the later, the team seemed to be trying a bit too hard to get sticks and the result was multiple under-rotated vaults.

When there wasn’t under rotation there was a lack of control on landings, with no gymnast sticking their vault on Monday.

On bars, there were mistakes everywhere.

Glaring ones, like two falls from Alani Sabado, though Dockendorf noted that she has the utmost confidence in Sabado’s improvement going forward.

“She is going to be in that lineup. She didn’t have a great meet tonight, but Alani hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to compete in super high pressure meets the past few years on that event. It is important for her to go out and feel a little bit more pressure than normal. I’ve got no doubt that she will do a different bar routine on Friday.”

Then there were little mistakes, shuffled feet or steps on landings, leg separation or short handstands.

Bars simply wasn’t Utah’s rotation against UCLA.

“We obviously left a lot of tenths (of a point) out there,” Dockendorf said. “Made some mistakes.”

The takeaway

Good teams win meets. Great teams win meets against great teams. Elite teams win meet against great teams under the most difficult of circumstances.

Against UCLA, Utah proved to be much closer to an elite team, even if the Red Rocks’ overall performance wasn’t up to the standards they’d hope for.

Utah faced adversity and handled it well, even with a team that is largely young and inexperienced.

“We are really focusing on progress, not perfection,” Dockendorf said. “... The biggest takeaway was for us to be able to come out and come out on top in UCLA territory which is really hard to do.


“Young team that hasn’t been in here and we just never gave up. Fought all the way to the end. The strength of this team, we were able to push even when we were behind and stayed focused on us.”

Perhaps most encouraging and illustrative of Utah’s aim this season. Moments after defeating their rivals in thrilling fashion, the Red Rocks had moved on to the next thing.

“Honestly, we are very proud of ourselves, but we have another meet in four days so we are going to get back in the gym and work hard, focus on the details and continue to move forward,” Paulson said. “We are grateful we had this meet, this showing, but we have a long season ahead of us.”