CORVALLIS, Ore. - Finishing second is often a hard spot to finish because teams frequently feel like they lost something instead of achieved. But on a night when the Utah gymnastics team could have tumbled into obscurity, the Utes clearly won second.
Georgia completed an undefeated season here Friday, winning the 2006 NCAA gymnastics title with a 197.75 while Utah was second with a 196.8 followed by Alabama (196.725), Florida (196.275), Nebraska (196.175) and Iowa State (194.275).
The University of Utah's gymnastics team learned in the preliminary competition Thursday that 9.8s weren't good enough to contend for the national title. The Utes knew they had to up their performances in Friday's finals, and at first they looked like they were up to the challenge as Dominque D'Oliveira tied her season high with a 9.775 on the bars as the first up, followed by a 9.8 from Jessica Duke.
Instead of building, the Utes started sliding. Nina Kim overrotated and scored a 9.65. Ashley Postell, who pulled an arm muscle in bar warmups, fell on her landing and scored just 9.2 and Nicolle Ford, the anchor, took a big step on her landing and scored a 9.85. Freshman Kristina Baskett had a team high 9.875 to give Utah a 48.95.
By the end of the first rotation, the Utes knew unless other teams collapsed, they were probably out of the hunt for the national title.
But instead of folding, the Utes got stronger, and overtook Alabama in the final rotation for its highest placing at nationals since it finished second in 2000.
"The way we started out behind, I'm so proud of the way this team fought," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "We knew we'd taken ourselves out of an opportunity for a championship, but they were determined not to give up and we fought back."
Getting behind early seemed to relax the Utes as they went to beam and had one of their best sets, scoring a 49.325, led by a 9.95 from Postell and a 9.9 from Ford.
"Ashley and I were the most nervous tonight," Ford said. "Everyone else did a great job of calming us down. We knew we'd taken ourselves out of the championship and we just wanted to finish strong."
Utah's beam set put the Utes in a battle with Alabama for second place behind Georgia. The Tide earned some separation after the vault, scoring a 49.4 to lead Georgia (98.675) by a tenth while the Utes sat in third (98.275).
Utah had trouble on the floor Thursday, and little mistakes hurt the Utes again on Friday as Kristina Baskett stepped out (9.675) and others had small deductions on their landings. Ford and Postell scored 9.875s to lead the team in a 49.175.
Luckily, other teams were having similar troubles sticking routines, allowing the Utes to remain solidly in third going into the final events.
Most importantly for Utah, every time a teammate faltered, someone else was there to do a little bit better, making the mistakes less costly.
"That was the best bars set Dom has done this year, Gabi [Onodi] did a great and Gritt was awesome," Marsden said. "After what happened on bars, I couldn't have been more pleased with how we finished the meet."
Utah finished on the vault with a 49.35 in one of its best vault sets of the year, led by its freshmen as Nina Kim scored a 9.9 and Baskett had a 9.95.
"We wanted to go out strong," Postell said. "It was better to do that, than to just go down."
With the Utes' meet over, all they could do was watch and see if their score would be good enough to earn the second highest spot on the podium. It was, as Alabama may have folded under pressure.
The Tide had to count a fall on beam, its last event, and slipped to third. Georgia, meanwhile, closed out its meet with a 49.65 on the vault to win its second title in a row.
Georgia has won national titles in 1987, 1989, 1993, 1998, 1999, 2005 and has been one of the most dominating teams in the last seven years.
Since 2000, Georgia has won two national titles, finished second three times and third twice.
The Gym Dogs finish the season with a 36-0 mark, its sixth undefeated season (1992, 1993, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2006).
In short: Utah finished second at the NCAA Championships behind undefeated and two-time champion Georgia.
Key moment: Utah opened with a 48.95 on the bars, putting itself too far behind to catch the leader.
Key stat: Utah scored a 49.35 to finish on the vault, performing one of its strongest bar sets of the year.