© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2002
TAMPA -- Two concerns for Tampa entering its South Region matchup with West Georgia were an unfamiliar opponent and its own first-round bye.
They combined to end UT's season as West Georgia went ahead early, withstood a furious rally and won 77-69 Saturday night. West Georgia (23-8), which entered the region tournament as the fifth seed, has pulled off two upsets to reach the final. The Braves face Valdosta State at 4 p.m. today for a berth in the Elite 8.
Valdosta State beat Henderson State 80-54. "We were sluggish at the beginning of the game and just didn't play well," said UT coach Richard Schmidt, whose team was the top seed in the tournament. "I've said it time and time again that byes can hurt you, but West Georgia just played better than us and smarter than us."
West Georgia was quicker to the ball, used its crisp passing to open up shots and led for most of the first half. Gecarri Freeman's 3-pointer gave UT (26-3) a 32-31 halftime lead.
"We knew coming in this game would be a matter of conflicting styles," West Georgia coach Ed Murphy said. "We are very different teams, and the key for us was to get control. We thought someone was going to get ahead and stay ahead."
It almost didn't work that way.
With three Andy Young 3-pointers helping give the Braves a 51-41 lead with 13:20 left, a blowout appeared imminent. But UT, ranked fourth in the nation, put together a 16-5 run, recapturing the lead on Jon Brown's 3-pointer with just less than eight minutes left.
From that point, the teams matched each other almost shot for shot until the final minute. Chezley Watson's 10-foot jumper banked in to give the Braves a 71-69 lead. UT saw its last chance go awry when Brown's 10-footer came up short. The Braves then made six free throws, four on technicals on Peter Howard for arguing. Earnest Williams led UT with 17 points. West Georgia got 17 from Watson and Dennis Long.
"We finally got going doing a good job on some things," Schmidt said. "But we didn't play well enough to overcome the mistakes we made at the start of the game."
St. Petersburg College earned its first state title 80-76 in overtime against Indian River Community College at Chipola Junior College in Marianna.
The Titans (28-5) qualified for the National Junior College championship March 19-23 in Hutchinson, Kan.
SPC was led by Carl Jenkins with 20 points. Orien Hatcher scored 14, including a 3-pointer in overtime that gave the Titans a two-point lead. Cavin Cummings closed out the scoring with seven seconds left when he made two free throws for a four-point lead.
Brian Morrow and Nick Berry scored 10. "No one expected us to be here," said SPC coach Earnest Crumbley, whose son, Kory, earned a high school state title with Lakewood earlier in the day. "If they didn't know about us before, they're going to know now."
-- Times staff writer Rodney Page contributed to this report.