If the Utes had lost to No. 15 Denver, it would have marked the first time in the program's history Utah didn't advance to the NCAA Championships, a streak of 31 appearances.
"We were so happy to end on vault," Becky Tutka said. "We know it's our best event and we went at it like we had nothing to lose."
Actually, they had everything to lose.
Utah went into Saturday's meet knowing it would be near impossible to beat host Alabama, but a loss to the Pioneers would have been a disheartening way to end the season for a team that has battled to overcome injuries to key performers.
Instead, the Utes showed the determination and confidence on the vault they lacked two weeks ago when they crumbled on the balance beam and fell from first to third at the Pac-12 Championships.
Utah's 49.4 on the vault was the meet's high score on the event. Tory Wilson won her 11th vault title and ended Utah's effort with a 9.925, a score that was matched by teammate Georgia Dabritz.
On Saturday, it was Denver's turn to struggle on the beam as the Pioneers scored only 48.275 and finished fourth with a 195.275.
Alabama went on to win the region with a 197.4 while Iowa State was third with a 195.4, BYU was fifth with a 194.45 and Kent State was sixth with a 193.5.
"That just shows what the luck of the draw can do for you," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "The last time out we started on our best two events and we had to watch the scores rise behind us. This time we got to finish on them. Floor wasn't great but vault was incredible. I am really proud of the way we finished off."
The Utes had to battle from behind all night.
Mixed results on the first two rotations meant the Utes trailed Alabama (98.725) and Denver (98.05) at the halfway point.
The situation looked even worse after the Utes took to the floor and Mary Beth Lofgren scored a 9.675 as the leadoff, then Lia Del Priore had a 9.575 after a near-fall.
However, the last four finished strong as all scored above 9.85. Nansy Damianova led the Utes with a 9.925.
The late effort gave Utah a 49.175, which was good enough to put the Utes into a tie with Denver after the Pioneers scored 48.95 on the bars.
Marsden said he felt confident the Utes would beat Denver, which averaged only 49.095 on the beam while the Utes average 49.43 on the vault.
"We haven't had a bad night on vault all year long," he said.
Saturday turned out to be one of their best. Tutka scored a 9.85 to lead off the rotation and every gymnast had a 9.8 or higher.
"Going into vault, we were excited because we know we have strong vaulters," Kassandra Lopez said. "It is an easy event for us, so we were confident."
Storylines Opening up their vault
R In short • The Utes deliver the night's best vault score to break a tie with Denver and advance to the NCAA Championships.
Key moment • Tory Wilson and Georgia Dabritz score 9.925s on the vault to tie for the individual title.
Key stat • The Utes are the only team in the country to advance to the NCAAs every year, a streak of 32 appearances.
1. Alabama 197.4
2. Utah 196.4
3. Iowa State 195.4
4. Denver 195.275
5. BYU 194.475
6. Kent State 193.5
Vault • Kayla Williams (Alabama), Georgia Dabritz (Utah), Tory Wilson (Utah): 9.925
Uneven bars • Kaitlyn Clark (Alabama), Kim Jacob (Alabama), Ashley Priess (Alabama): 9.9
Balance beam • Kim Jacob (Alabama): 9.95
Floor • Diandra Milliner (Alabama) and Nansy Damianova (Utah): 9.925
All-Around • Ashley Priess (Alabama) 39.6