Los Angeles • Make no mistake, Utah's gymnastics team isn't just happy to be a part of the Pac-12 the Utes plan to win.
The fifth-ranked Utes sent that message Sunday by nearly upsetting top-ranked UCLA. The Utes overcame a poor first rotation to fall by the slim margin of 196.075-196.025 in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,000 at the John Wooden Center.
The meet was held in the close confines of the old gym because Pauley Pavilion is undergoing renovations. But neither the pressure atmosphere of having the fans only a few feet away nor the challenge of facing a team that boasts eight returning All-Americans fazed the Utes.
UCLA didn't clinch the meet until its last performer on floor, Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, scored a 9.675.
The Utes forced the Bruins into the nail-biting situation by scoring a 49.0 on the balance beam.
"We didn't get the exact outcome we wanted, but it was a good start," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "For it to come down to the last routine and for us to come back like we did says a lot about this team."
The Utes had to rally after they opened with a 48.45 on the uneven bars as three gymnasts had major breaks.
The Bruins, meanwhile, opened with a 49.55 on the vault.
"That first event we all had some jitters," Utah senior Stephanie McAllister said. "We all felt a little tight, and we had to get that out of our system."
The Utes did just that, in a big way, as they avoided any major mistakes on their next three events to chip away at UCLA's lead.
The Bruins, meanwhile, suffered small mistakes on the floor and balance beam to make a Utah comeback possible.
UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field is happy to have the Utes in her conference, but she was steaming at the thought her team almost gave the Utes a welcoming present in the form of a win.
"This team has a ton of talent, but there was no excuse for us having mistakes like that and I'm sick and tired of having to say that," she said. "It's a good thing that we fought on floor. It's important our team learns how important these regular-season meets are. They just can't wait to get to nationals or the Pac-12 championships. They have to learn to fight. We could have had a 197, and that would have sent a statement. We aren't a 196 team, but we were today."
While the UCLA coach sounded defeated, the Utes sounded victorious, believing their overall showing has the makings of a good season ahead of them.
The Utes return home to host Utah State Friday, then have a bye week before hosting BYU on Jan. 27.
The next top team they'll face is Georgia on Feb. 3 and by then, the Utes believe they'll have improved from being rookies to the college scene to legitimate contenders if Sunday's meet is an indication of their future.
Of particular pride to the Utes was their balance beam rotation. UCLA had trouble with the event, scoring just 48.375 thanks to three gymnasts who had major breaks.
But the Utes were solid, totaling a 49.0 that included a 9.825 from McAllister and a 9.8 from Corrie Lothrop.
"Our team theme this year is 'Women at War,' and we definitely fought back today," McAllister said. "We showed we had some fight in us." Event winners
Vault • Tauny Frattone (UCLA) 9.95
Uneven bars • Aisha Gerber (UCLA) 9.9
Balance beam • Stephanie McAllister (Utah) 9.85
Floor • Georgia Dabritz (Utah) 9.9
All-Around • Samantha Peszek (UCLA) 39.45