No. 8 Cal looks to bounce back, clinch Pac-12 title against No. 17 UCLA

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

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Despite an unexpected defeat against Arizona State that ended its undefeated streak, Cal women’s gymnastics entered the national qualifying score rankings at No. 8, putting itself in sound position as it nears the postseason. With solid scores already in their arsenal, the Bears enter Sunday’s meet at UCLA with much to gain.

After failing to clinch the Pac-12 regular-season title outright when it faced ASU, Cal

stands to become the sole conference champion with a win over UCLA. A loss would mean sharing the crown with Utah and potentially Oregon State and ASU, each of which sit at two losses. Both the Beavers and the Sun Devils are entering their Friday matchups as the favorites, so a four-way Pac-12 regular-season championship is likely if UCLA pulls out a win.

Although the Bruins have historically outperformed the Bears, the tides between the two sister schools turned last season when Cal earned its sixth-ever win over UCLA. On Sunday, the Bears will look to replicate last year’s meet, during which they tallied a program-high 198.05, tied the NCAA uneven bars record and posted the second perfect 10 in school history.

While last season’s win over the seven-time national champions may have seemed like a COVID-19-induced anomaly, this season has shown Cal’s continued upward trajectory and UCLA’s descent.

The Bears have remained consistent, earning no scores lower than their season-opening 196.325. Meanwhile, the Bruins’ year has been embroiled with ups and downs: They started the season with a 194.850, their lowest score in almost seven years, and earned a 195.475 just two weeks ago after a series of 196-plus marks.

The blue and gold enter the meet looking stronger than they did last season, potentially making up for the loss of home-floor advantage. Cal’s strategy of competing several all-arounders has paid off, with three Bears among the country’s top 20 all-arounders: No. 6 Andi Li, No. 11 Maya Bordas and No. 19 Nevaeh DeSouza. Li is also tied for No. 5 on bars.

With some of the strongest gymnasts in the country, however, the Bruins have the potential to tally their third win of the season. UCLA’s three perfect 10s this year — two of which came from Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles — boost its scoring ceiling. And the Bruins’ highest score this season, 197.65, is a mark the Bears haven’t reached since NCAA regionals last year.

Standout freshmen Chiles and Emma Malabuyo, an alternate for the 2020 U.S. Olympic team, have scores of 9.875 or better on every event. And 2021 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Chae Campbell has remained a consistent all-around competitor, scoring at least 39.5 in each of her last three performances and earning her first 10 last week against Washington.

But UCLA’s season has been plagued by controversy and inconsistency. Amid allegations of improper responses to racism within the team and calls for head coach Chris Waller to be fired, the Bruins have struggled to put together solid full meets, in addition to losing key gymnasts to injury.

Although performing in front of a home crowd should inspire a strong performance — UCLA’s strongest meets this season have come in Pauley Pavilion — the Bruins enter this matchup as clear underdogs, and securing their third 197-plus score of the season is crucial to how they enter the postseason.

With UCLA’s standing and Cal’s conference championship on the line, fans can expect both teams to put forward their best when they meet Sunday at noon in Los Angeles. The Cal faithful can watch the Bears pursue their first 197-plus away score of the season on the Pac-12 Network.

Jocelyn Huang covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter @jocelynxhuang.