During a long delay as judges debated a teammate’s score, Jordan Chiles responded the way UCLA gymnasts almost always do.
She danced. Then the Olympic silver medalist stuck her bars dismount.
Postseason pressure rattled other top teams, but No. 14 UCLA danced, chanted and smiled its way to Saturday’s NCAA regional final by winning its semifinal round in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday. With a 197.8, the Bruins notched their second-best score of the season in a wire-to-wire victory over defending national champion Michigan (197.4), Maryland (196.025) and North Carolina (195.15).
“We have known that we can do this,” coach Chris Waller said. “We have trained like this. … To have the team put a day together like this, it’s a huge celebration for them and all the work that they put in.”
Now the Bruins have to do it again.
Scores reset for Saturday’s regional final, which will feature No. 3 Michigan, No. 11 Missouri and Iowa. The top two finishers advance to the NCAA championships in Fort Worth on April 14-16.
The Bruins inched closer to nationals before even competing Thursday night. No. 6 Louisiana State, the second-ranked team in the eight-team regional, failed to advance out of the first semifinal. LSU’s third-place finish left one fewer ranked team in UCLA’s path toward nationals.
But Thursday’s meet showed the Bruins don’t need help to crash the national party.
Despite entering as the fourth-highest seed, UCLA finished with the best qualifying score of the four finalists. The Wolverines had falls on three of four events and took a one-tenth team deduction because a gymnast competed out of order on bars to finish four-tenths behind the Bruins. Missouri won the first semifinal with a 197.15, and the unseeded Hawkeyes upset LSU with a 196.9.
The driver’s seat position looked unlikely for UCLA after the Bruins had their season delayed because of a COVID-19 pause, stumbled through the regular season while trying to repair trust between coaches and gymnasts, and finished fourth at the Pac-12 championships.
But to senior Norah Flatley, the challenges made the team “invincible” to anything that comes.
“A lot of us have been through so many things in our careers and I know they know how to fight,” Flatley said. “I just had no doubt from the beginning of the season we were going to get to where we needed to be no matter what.”
UCLA overcame a pattern of slow road starts and jumped ahead as if it were performing in Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins re-created their home atmosphere by chanting their teammates’ names before routines just like the student section in Westwood. They raised their hands for high-fives after every performance and flashed 10 fingers hoping to sway judges after seemingly flawless routines.
Those sideline details that made an arena 2,500 miles away from L.A. feel like home “carried the performance,” Waller said.
The energy also carried UCLA through missteps that might have derailed the young team earlier this season.
Chiles’ dance break helped the Bruins erase a 9.45 from Emma Malabuyo on bars as Chiles and Flatley scored 9.95 and 9.925, respectively, to finish the rotation. UCLA tied its season-high score of 49.475 on the event.