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A PERFECT 10! U. WINS NCAAS

The Little Team That Could did it again. A perfect 10, as in double figures in national gymnastics championships. In Utah's 20th-anniversary year, it won its 10th national title, second in a row and fourth in the 1990s. And it made up for an old loss in Athens six years ago.

"How the heck can you do that?" shouted Oregon State (sixth place) coach Jim Turpin at the Utes during their championship press conference late Friday night. He was smiling. And admiring what Utah had just done. Again.In one of the Utes' most astonishing wins ever (this was their ninth NCAA team championship, added to their win in the last AIAW championship), Utah came into Friday night's Super Six Night of the NCAA Championships with the seventh-best score from Thursday's preliminary round, the hardest start the sport has to offer (balance beam) and hurting so badly some of the Utes could hardly walk.

But this team that has wondered all season if it would have enough healthy athletes to be legal climbed on the beam and scored a decent 49.1 to stand second after the first rotation to Alabama Friday night in a sultry Georgia Coliseum. The Tide scored 49.475 on vault and appeared primed to finally win after two straight second-place years.

Alabama remained first and Utah second through three events and four rotations while Georgia, Michigan and UCLA tossed off big scores followed by big misses, jockeying unsuccessfully to knock off at least the Utes.

Going into their last event and the one that had left them with the seventh-best score Thursday (third in the afternoon session, seventh overall; three teams from each session advance to the Super Six), the Utes hit 49.25 to overtake Alabama, struggling with two falls on floor to score 48.85.

The Utes finished with 196.65 points to Alabama's 196.425 total, and the two of them sat out a bye while Georgia, Michigan and UCLA finished.

Michigan fulfilled the prophecy of the coaches on interview day (Wednesday) when it was mutually agreed this might be the year somebody could break up the Utah-Alabama-Georgia Big Three for the first time since 1989 - ironically, the last time the championships were here.

Michigan did it. It tied Alabama for second, UCLA wound up fourth and Georgia, so primed to win on its home floor with thousands of fans barking like Bulldogs, was fifth, 196.075.

That's less than .6 point separating five teams. Parity is nearby.

Oregon State was sixth, 194.85.

Oddly, in 1989 in this same building, Georgia was first while the Utes were devastated with their fifth place, lowest Utah finish since 1978 but the thing Marsden credits for jump-starting the program again.

Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, in tears, gave Marsden a long, exhausted hug. "She said she didn't know what she was doing wrong, `What's your secret?"' Marsden related of the exchange. "If I knew, I'd tell her. Whatever it is, I hope we don't lose it." He later said, "If I have a secret it's that we don't worry about winning."

Alabama and Georgia had pressured themselves greatly to win this meet in Southeastern Conference territory.

Tide coach Sarah Patterson, who has feuded with Marsden through most of the '90s after emulating his program in the '80s, was gracious following the meet, which her team had in its pocket. "We have cornered the market on second place, but Utah has cornered the market on first place.

"My hat is off to the University of Utah. I don't know how (Marsden) has continued to do it. We had more athletes than he did tonight. We've had an easier season.

"Every gymnastics coach should look around and see that this man has done a tremendous amount for our sport," Patterson said.

"I don't think it's called choking," Patterson said of her club's floor falls. "They made a mistake. We needed .2 more."

Michigan senior gymnast Beth Wymer said when coach Bev Plocki told the team last fall it had the talent to finish in the top three, the athletes thought it a lofty goal. The Wolverines surprised themselves.

"We're the proudest second-place team in history," Plocki said.

The NCAA competition ends tonight with the individual event finals at 5 p.m. MDT. Those who finished among the top eight (plus ties) in Thursday's team preliminary round compete again tonight for NCAA titles in vault, bars, beam and floor.

Utah placed only three people in beam finals (Megan Caudle, Sandy Woolsey and Traci Sommer) and one (Aimee Trepanier) on floor finals. BYU's Liz Crandall made bars finals.

Highlights of the three-day championships are scheduled to be shown by CBS-TV at 1 p.m. MDT on Saturday, April 29.