SALT LAKE CITY — The top two collegiate programs in women's gymnastics may not be where they want to be yet, as both try to cope with the losses of big-time senior classes from last year.
But Utah and Georgia can still put on a rip-roaring meet that had to satisfy an NCAA-record crowd at the Huntsman Center on Friday night.
"How could it not be a great event?" asked Utah coach Greg Marsden after his club had nudged the Georgia Gym Dogs 196.55-196.50, the season's top scores for both teams.
"It was a great event to compete in, and it had to be a fun event to watch.
"That's exactly what I needed," said Marsden, who spent four days this week in a sick bed before finally making it to Thursday's practice.
"Any time you beat Georgia, it's a big deal. They've had our number for a long time.
"It was close, and I was ready for it to go either way. If it had turned out the other way, I still felt good about the performance of the team tonight. Far from perfect. We have a lot of things we still have to get better at, but it was another step forward. If we can do that consistently for 10 more weeks, at the end of the season, we're going to be a pretty good team."
"We've had a rivalry with them, but every win is a win," said junior Kyndal Robarts, who helped get the Utes the lead in vault as she went long and stuck her Omelianchik vault (half-turn Yurchenko on with piked salto off) for a career-best 9.95. "It feels good to win any meet, but this one was nice also."
It was a back-and-forth, nail-biter of a night, Utah leading after one event, trailing after two, retaking the lead after the third as Georgia had three out-of-bounds mistakes on its floor exercise and then barely holding on as George uncorked its best balance beam set of the season (49.325).
"We didn't lay down and die. Our team grew up a little bit tonight," said first-year Georgia head coach Jay Clark, who is taking over for the retired legend, Suzanne Yoculan. "Regardless of the final score — of course, you always want to win — but we feel good about the progress we made. It felt more like a Georgia team tonight."
Utah's two final floor-workers made just enough difference.
After Ute senior Daria Bijak changed her middle tumbling pass while doing her warmups — she made a cleaner landing on it because she could see the floor better doing a whip-half, layout-half rather than the layout full she usually does — she finished with a career-high 9.95 to help the Utes stay up with Georgia's beam charge.
And senior Annie DiLuzio, who had no idea that the meet actually came down to her final routine of the night on floor, came up with a 9.875 — just enough to let the sixth-ranked Utes move to 2-1 for the season. Georgia, ranked 10th, fell to 1-2 in this rather unusual season for these two teams that have won a combined 20 national team championships, 10 each, since 1981. Georgia has won the last five NCAA titles.
DiLuzio, who was tied for the nation's No. 1 ranking on floor after scoring 9.95 last week, said it probably wouldn't have mattered to her had she known that the meet was coming down to her routine.
"Maybe a little bit," she said, "but then I'd get back into what I needed to do and what I needed to focus on — just one thing at a time. That's what I always think about. Do it like in practice."
Friday's floor for DiLuzio was not quite as good as last week's.
"I think my landing on my last pass was a little bit sloppier this week than last week," she said, "but it still felt pretty good."
Robarts has been coached to make an adjustment in her vault that seems to have solidified it. Marsden said she used to come off of the table a little too flat, so they have her trying to repulse higher off the table "so she would drop out of it," he said. And that's what she does.
"The execution of the vault was really good, and it let me stick it again," said Robarts. "It was better than last week's, too. It was higher and easier to make, and the stick was effortless."
Marsden was pleased that his club was able to come back on beam for a second straight week after a fall early in the lineup.
"They handled that out there (on the competition floor) better than I did in here," he said.
Marsden never watches his team on beam, the event coached by his wife and co-head coach, Megan. He stays far away to avoid making his athletes feel nervous, and during home meets, he usually sits in the basketball squad room.
What lies ahead for the Utes — who have a meet at Washington next Friday and one at Arizona State on Feb. 5 — is that, "We've got to tighten up our shapes. We're a little loose," Marsden said, meaning that toes aren't always pointed, feet aren't always perfectly together and other little deductions. "We're not making big mistakes."
And they have to find out why Jamie Deetscreek scored only 9.75 with what seemed to most to have been a very clean floor routine that scored 9.825 last week. Marsden said they will look at the film and hope to get some input from a request to the judges; rules have changed this year, and everyone is still getting used to that, he said.