LOS ANGELES — All season long the Utah gymnastics team knew its ability to master the mental challenges of the balance beam would determine just how successful it could be this year.
For most of the Red Rocks, the season ended Friday night with a disappointing outing on the event that has tortured the young Utes all season.
“It was a roller coaster on that event all year,” said Utah co-head coach Greg Marsden after the Utes finished fifth of six teams in the NCAA's second semifinal with a score of 196.200. “We talked at the end here, and that’s got to be our focus in the offseason is to get much better on that event.”
Defending national champion Alabama earned the evening session’s highest score with a 197.350. Oklahoma and host UCLA tied for second with 197.200s. Michigan was fourth with a score of 196.850, followed by Utah and then Arkansas in last place with a 196.150.
The first semifinal session Friday at Pauley Pavillion was all about the SEC.
No. 1 seed Florida and LSU tied for first in the early semifinal at 197.325, while Georgia earned the third and final spot with a 197.150.
“I think this speaks to the level of competition in the SEC,” said Georgia head coach Danna Durante, who took over the program last May. “This also gets the Super Six monkey off their backs, especially our seniors. We are looking forward to representing the University of Georgia tomorrow.”
Alabama, Oklahoma and UCLA will join LSU, Florida and Georgia as the Super Six competing for the 2013 championship Saturday night.
The Utes got off to a rough start on floor, which is normally one of their strongest events.
“Floor was a mixed bag,” said Marsden. “We had some really nice floors, and we had some steps that were a little uncharacteristic. I thought some people were a little tight tonight and some people were able to handle it pretty well.”
One of those who struggled, he said, was sophomore Tory Wilson, who stepped into an all-around role when team co-captain Corrie Lothrop went down with a ruptured Achilles. She not only won 10 straight vault competitions, but she became the team’s model of consistency and confidence on every other event — including beam.
“I think Tory tried a little too hard tonight,” said Marsden. “She just wasn’t herself, I think, other than on vault.”
Wilson, who qualified to compete for an individual title on vault, said she didn’t feel particularly nervous before Friday’s semifinal.
“I was actually really excited,” she said laughing. “It’s the last meet of the year and there really is not pressure to make it to somewhere else — except Super Six.”
While the team had a lower-than-average vault score (49.2) and a modest floor score (49.3), the Utes enjoyed their highest bar score of the season — and the second-highest in team history (49.475).
“Bars was phenomenal,” he said. “Bars was a season-best, which is what you want to try to do here.”
Despite trailing by less than a tenth of a point after two events, Marsden said he knew making the finals was a tall order because of the events that remained for Utah.
“Realistically, going to beam, it was going to be tough when the other teams were going to events where they’ll score higher,” he said.
The Ute gymnasts certainly felt they had hope, although that dimmed significantly when the first gymnast, Becky Tutka, struggled to stay on and scored 9.450. The outlooked brightened momentarily when freshman Brianna Hughes competed next and scored a 9.850.
“Brianna has been incredible all year,” said Marsden. “Becky was all over the place on beam, and then Brianna got right up there and really got us back into it, at least it appeared, at the time.”
But then both Wilson and Kassandra Lopez fell, ending Utah’s chances at the Super Six.
Despite some uncharacteristic mistakes, Marsden said he was proud of the team and how even when the finals were out of reach, they battled to do their best.
“It’s hard for me to be upset because I think they worked hard all night, and it just wasn’t our night,” he said. “They worked hard all year, and they’ve been through a lot.”
Dabritz said the performance on bars gave the gymnasts confidence heading into beam.
“It was good for us going into beam, but it just wasn’t enough,” Dabritz said. “We weren’t really expecting to go out there and be perfect. The most exciting part is that we’ll all be back next year. It’s a little bittersweet. We wanted to make it, but we’ll all be back next year, and we just have those little things to work on.”
One silver lining is that three Utah gymnasts qualified on four events — Wilson on vault, Dabritz on bars and Nansy Damianova on floor and bars.
Damianova had a fantastic outing, scoring a team-high on floor (9.925) and earning the second-highest score on bars (9.925). Dabritz earned the team’s top bars score with a 9.950. Wilson qualified for the vault competition on Sunday with a 9.90.
Florida freshman and an Olympic hopeful last year, Bridget Sloan, earned the top score in the all-around with a 39.600. LSU’s Rheagan Courville was second with a 39.575, while individual competitor Emily Wong (Nebraska) and Florida’s Marissa King tied for third with scores of 39.525.
In the second session, Michigan’s Joanna Sampson and Katie Zurales tied for the win in all-around with a 39.525. Arkansas' Kathrine Grable and Utah’s Dabritz tied for third with scores of 39.475.
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