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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
University of Utah gymnast Ashley Postell is comforted by assistant coach Megan Marsden after almost falling off the beam Friday at the NCAA Gymnastics Finals in Auburn, Ala. The No. 1-ranked Utes finished the season in third place.

AUBURN, Ala. — Good, but not good enough to win.

The University of Utah gymnastics team finished better than it has since 2000, but it didn't win a national championship Friday night at the NCAA finals at Auburn University.

And that left the Utes feeling kind of in between.

They placed third, behind a tremendous night from Georgia, which totaled 197.825 to win, and a big charge by Alabama, which scored 49.625 on its last event — the vault — to total 197.40 and jump past both Utah (197.275) and two-time defending champion UCLA (197.15) on the final rotation.

Third ain't first. It ain't sixth, either, which is where the Utes finished the last two years.

It's halfway between, a marked improvement, but not where they want to be, especially since they might have at least had second had freshman Ashley Postell not bruised a heel in pre-meet beam warm-ups.

She gutted her way through the meet, scoring 39.325 all-around. But the heel bruise hurt her most on Utah's final event — the hard, wooden beam, her favorite thing—and she scored just 9.65. Had the 2002 world beam champion gotten near her national-best Regional Qualifying Score of 9.96, the Utes would have fended off the rising Crimson Tide for second.

But, after having to "work on my tippy-toes all night" to keep weight off the swelling heel, she couldn't avoid bumping it on beam, and "it was hard for me to concentrate." She had a major wobble that wasn't caused by the heel but by the distraction she felt from it, and that was the difference between bronze and silver on a terrific night of gymnastics.

In the entire meet, no team counted a fall, and there were only three falls all night — two by UCLA and one by Nebraska, which finished sixth (196.425) behind Michigan (196.575).

The competition conclude tonight at 6 MDT with the individual event finals.

Utah's other injured athletes — Rachel Tidd (back), Gritt Hofmann (torn calf muscle) and Kristen Riffanacht (shoulder) — did pretty well. Tidd, in fact, scored 39.50 all-around, tying senior teammate Annabeth Eberle. Sophomore teammate Nicolle Ford, who fell Thursday on beam, roared back for team honors scoring 39.55.

Hofmann scored 9.90 in her final routine as a Ute on floor, and Riffanacht had 9.80 on beam to help keep Utah in the running for second.

"We felt we had a team that was good enough to win," said Ute coach Greg Marsden, "and we still feel we were good enough — we just weren't on this night.

"You bet it's better than sixth. They'll be up on the awards stand. It's just not what we were hoping for."

Utah has 10 national titles but hasn't won one since 1995. It thought there was a chance this year, but Georgia blew everybody away.

A team that nearly didn't qualify for nationals — Denver could have beaten the Gym Dawgs out for second place at the Southeast Regional two weeks ago but didn't get it done — Georgia came into the meet seeded 12th.

"Worst to best," noted Gym Dawg coach Suzanne Yoculan, whose teams have now won six NCAA titles, second only to Utah's Marsden, who said he knew a title was out of reach for his team after its third rotation, bars. "Nobody was going to catch them at that point," he said, adding that Georgia simply seized control and "did what we all thought you would have to do to win, and the rest of us didn't."

The Utes started the meet with a step out of bounds on floor and had lesser mistakes throughout. "I can nit-pick little things to death. That was the difference. Georgia did the little things," Marsden said.

"We wanted it early and were trying a little too hard on floor," said co-captain Eberle, with tear-filled eyes after her outstanding career had come to an end. "But we turned it on again, and I'm so proud of this team."

Marsden's only lineup change for the night came after floor, to start vault, when he inserted junior Gabi Onodi into the leadoff spot, and she came through with 9.80 to help the team total 49.375. "Unbelievable," he said of Onodi's contribution. "That's the best vault she's ever done in her life. She really rose to the occasion."

The Utes had a few steps on bars, ensuring they were out of the running for first, and a few more errors on beam to remain third while Alabama passed them.

Still, the Utes came away feeling good enough to pose for lots of pictures with the third-place trophy and to take with them the banner for the third-place team.

"We did our best, and that's all you can do," said Tidd. "We're very happy."

Then again, said Ford, "Of course this is disappointing. We wanted it really bad, but we didn't have a perfect night.

"It's a good step in the right direction," she added. "Third is much-improved (from sixth)."

"It kind of excites me even more," said Postell, with three more years to try to regain a championship for Utah. "We have a good group of girls (recruits) for next year. And even though we were third, we're still happy and pleased that we gave it all we had.

"No regrets," Postell said.

"We're not happy with it," said Marsden, "but I felt like the team did a real good job."

E-mail: lham@desnews.com