No. 3 Florida poses the most formidable challenge since beating No. 1 Georgia
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Not since the season opener against Georgia has Utah's gymnastics team been in a battle where every tenth counts and the difference between winning and losing can come down to a single wobble.
All of that is expected to change for the Utes, who compete at No. 3 Florida tonight in an arena where the atmosphere can be intimidating and the pressure can be as thick and overwhelming as the Florida humidity.
Utah has the higher ranking, the undefeated season and the reputation as a legitimate national contender to uphold. The Gators (7-2) have the memories of finishing behind Utah at the NCAA Championships last April to spur them on and the home crowd, which averages 6,962. And they are a national contender, too, a trophy many thought they'd win last year before they slipped to third.
The Utes expect nothing but a firestorm.
"Competing in the SEC is always interesting," senior Katie Kivisto said. "But we can use it to our advantage and use it as a motivating factor. It's good to let our gymnastics do the talking."
The Utes (10-0) haven't talked with their gymnastics this season, they've yelled. They've gone through a tough schedule unscathed to join Oklahoma (16-0) and Michigan (15-0) as the only undefeated teams. The Utes have taken down then-No. 1-ranked Georgia, No. 7 Oregon State, No. 9 UCLA and No. 11 Nebraska, but tonight's meet is their toughest test of the season. Just 0.115 separates the teams in the rankings, and the Gators will probably get a tenth or two at home.
"That happens," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "It depends on the panel of judges, but it's obviously an advantage to be at home." Florida's losses are to Georgia and Alabama, by 0.125 of a point combined. Utah hasn't won in Gainesville since 2001, and the Gators beat the Utes 197.050-196.725 in Salt Lake City last season.
"It's a hard place to get a win, and we've had a hard time there," Marsden said. "I'd be happy going into a difficult situation with a long travel day if we hit our stuff and do a good job."
The last time Utah was in a similar situation, it crumpled, losing at Georgia last year by 196.850-195.475, a deficit that was its largest since a 2001 loss to UCLA. Afterward, the Utes admitted they were intimidated by the atmosphere.
"We weren't there for each other emotionally," junior Nina Kim said. "That made it harder."
The Utes also made the mistake of throwing the most difficulty they could, which sounded like a good plan until it added to the night's difficulties. Marsden said he will be a little more conservative tonight, letting the gymnasts decide what they are comfortable with doing.
However, they don't believe they'll be intimidated by the Gators or their crowd because their confidence is much higher this season and they can better handle difficult situations.
"It's better if you feed off it," junior Kristina Baskett said. "They want to get to you and it just makes you stronger if you can overcome it. Usually, we're so focused we don't even notice it."
Utah was in a difficult situation earlier this year when some of UCLA's football players and fans razzed the Utes by chanting "over-rated" and holding up newspapers during Utah's floor routines.
Their antics didn't faze the Utes, who won 197.450-195.825. The Utes made sure they got the final dig in, wearing their football jerseys when they marched out for the awards as a reminder of Utah's win over UCLA in football.
Last five regular season meetings with Florida:
2007: L, 197.050-196.725,
in Salt Lake City
2006: L, 197.325-196.675,
2005: W, 197.425-196.450,
in Salt Lake City
2003: L, 197.125-196.150,
2002: W, 196.750-195.250,
in Salt Lake City