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U. falters on bars, settles for sixth

SHARE U. falters on bars, settles for sixth

LOS ANGELES — If Utah's gymnastics team is fortunate enough to advance to next year's Super Six competition, it might want to think about bribing someone who can rig the rotation.

For the second straight year at the NCAA Championships, the Utes opened the competition with a disastrous bar set to finish with a 48.325. While two of the Utes were busy falling, and another was watering-down her dismount simply to avoid a third fall, UCLA was mesmerizing the crowd with its outstanding floor routines.

Just like that, the Utes' quest for a 10th NCAA championship was over. Utah regrouped during its final three events to post respectable scores, but had to settle for sixth place with a 195.775 score.

"It was disappointing, we blew it on bars," said Utah coach Greg Marsden. "We just never really got it going tonight."

UCLA, meanwhile, owned the night. Competing in front of their home fans at the Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins posted an NCAA Championship record 198.125 score to run away with its fifth NCAA title in the last seven years. UCLA scored a 49.525 on vault, a 49.425 on bars, a 49.60 on beam and a 49.575 on floor.

Georgia was a distant second with a 197.20, while Alabama and Stanford tied for third at 197.125. Florida finished fifth with a 196.80.

At nationals, you just can't afford to count a fall, especially on Super Six night. The competition is simply too tough.

Utah learned that lesson at the 2003 NCAA Championships when senior Theresa Kulikowski separated her shoulder in the midst of her bars routine. A previous Utah competitor had already fallen, and Utah had to count a fall and settle with a 48.675 bars score. Psychologically shattered, the Utes followed that up by wobbling to a 48.35 beam score.

Just like Kulikowski's fluke injury, Utah's disastrous bar set was also a fluke.

Since mid-February, the Utes have been simply awesome on bars. They've routinely scored 49.50 or better, and during Thursday's preliminary session they posted a 49.35.

A similar performance simply wasn't meant to be Friday. Utah's Dominique D'Oliveira opened Utah's bar set by falling for just the second time this season. That put a ton of pressure on Stephanie Lim, who was replacing the ailing Rachel Tidd. She hung on for a 9.60.

The wheels officially came off on Utah's next routine. Senior Veronique LeClerc — who had never fallen on a routine at regionals or nationals — stumbled on her landing after a great routine.

Annabeth Eberle and Melissa Vituj followed with average 9.775s, before Nicolle Ford salvaged Utah's first event with a 9.90.

There was no sign of pity on Utah's next event. Ford and Vituj both posted 9.9s, Eberle recorded a 9.85 and Kristen Riffanacht a 9.80. Natalie Nicoloff scored a 9.775, to finish the season a perfect 15-of-15.

"Beam was amazing," said Vituj. "This whole year it's been our weakest event, but it really helped us out tonight."

The Utes regrouped after a bye, and as they walked toward the floor for their next event, Marsden told them to, "show it off." They tallied a 49.075, but clearly had fun doing it. They finished with a 49.15 on vault.

"Our team tried to stay as strong as we could all night," said Vituj. "Tonight it just wasn't our night. Someone has to be sixth in the nation. We're just glad to be sixth instead of 56th."

NOTES: Saturday's event finals feature three different Utes. Ford qualified on beam and bars, while Vituj will compete on floor and Eberle will compete on vault.

To qualify for the individual event finals, a gymnast needed to finish in the top four in either of Thursday's afternoon or evening sessions. Each gymnast who finishes in the top four earns first-team All-American status.

Alabama's Jeana Rice captured the individual all-around title Thursday by tallying a 39.65. Utah's Vituj finished seventh with 39.55 while Ford tied for eighth at 39.525.

E-mail: jedward@desnews.com