Everything you need to know about UCLA gymnastics hosting the NCAA regionals
For the first time this season, UCLA is playing to win.
After the Bruins spent this season hoping to just improve their own scores each meet this year, completely ignoring what their opponents did, this week’s three-round, nine-team NCAA regional at Pauley Pavilion is the first time that a head-to-head result matters. UCLA needs to finish in the top two during Saturday’s regional final to advance to the national championship for the first time since 2019. If the Bruins fall short, their season is over.
UCLA missed the cut for nationals last season by 0.025, the smallest margin possible, so the Bruins know what’s at stake when they begin regional competition at 7 p.m. in the semifinal round on Thursday.
“We already feel the pain from that last year,” sophomore Emma Malabuyo said. “That motivates us a little bit more. ... That’s why this week, we’re like no regrets.”
Here’s what to know about the Los Angeles Regional:
Nine teams compete during three competition days with the top two advancing to the NCAA championships, which will be held April 13-15 in Fort Worth. All regional rounds will be broadcast on ESPN+.
Brigham Young University and Boise State faced off in a first-round dual meet on Wednesday, with the Broncos advancing to the semifinal Thursday at 7 p.m. against No. 4 UCLA, No. 14 Missouri and Stanford. No. 5 Utah, No. 12 Auburn, Southern Utah and Washington will compete in the first semifinal on Thursday at 2 p.m., with the top two teams from each quad meet advancing to the regional final at 5 p.m. on Saturday. Scores reset for the final and the top two teams advance to the national championship along with the top individual all-arounder and event finishers who are not on qualifying teams.
This format has been in use since 2019, resulting in a smaller national championship meet with just eight teams compared to 12.
The smaller field coincided with UCLA’s longest nationals drought in program history. But the Bruins are poised to return to the championship meet for the first time since 2019.
UCLA reasserted itself as a national contender behind its vintage floor rotation that continues the program’s proud legacy on the event. Led by Pac-12 floor co-champion Jordan Chiles, the Bruins are ranked first in the country on floor exercise.
With rotation order decided by a blind draw, the Bruins begin competition on beam, then rotate to floor and bars before ending on vault, which is their weakest event. Only two of UCLA’s six vaulters have a start value of 10, limiting the team’s scoring potential.
The third time could be the charm for UCLA against Utah this year. The Utes won a dual meet in Utah on Feb. 3 and narrowly claimed the Pac-12 championship on March 18 at UCLA's expense. Although the Bruins finished on floor with a 49.6, which was tied for the highest event score of the meet, they finished 0.075 points behind Utah, which won its third consecutive conference title.
Utah is ranked first in the country on beam, led by Maile O’Keefe and Kara Eaker, who are ranked first and fourth, respectively, on the event. Utah is the only program in the country to qualify for every national championship, 46 consecutive appearances.
UCLA has history with Missouri. The Tigers kept the Bruins out of the national championship meet last year by finishing second in the regional final. This year, Jocelyn Moore and Helen Hu earned regular-season All-American honors on vault and beam, respectively.
Auburn, headlined by Olympic gold medalist Suni Lee, had its best season in school history last year with a run to the NCAA final and finished fourth. Despite missing the last three meets with a non-gymnastics health issue, Lee still earned All-American honors on bars and all-around while Derrian Gobourne and Cassie Stevens were named All-Americans on floor and vault, respectively. Gobourne, whose popular floor routine this season is an ode to HBCUs, won her third consecutive SEC specialist of the year honor.
The biggest name of the regional may not compete as Lee is day-to-day with her injury, Auburn head coach Jeff Graba told reporters this week. Lee’s Olympic teammate Grace McCallum may also miss the meet. The Utah sophomore has not competed since injuring her knee on Feb. 11.
But there is still Olympic influence in the regional with Chiles, UCLA’s Olympic silver medalist, and Utah’s Amelie Morgan, who helped Great Britain to the bronze medal in Tokyo.
Chiles owns the nation’s top all-around score this season and ranks second in the country with UCLA freshman Selena Harris ranking sixth. Harris was named Pac-12 freshman of the year and the pair became the first teammates to each earn the maximum five All-Pac-12 honors in the same season.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.