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Creighton loss says it all

To describe Florida's season, one needs only to look at Friday's debacle.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

CHICAGO -- Five days before Florida opened play in the NCAA Tournament, coach Billy Donovan questioned whether his team was playing with the heart and desire to be a championship contender.

Donovan will spend the offseason questioning everything about the 2001-02 team.

Florida's 83-82 double-overtime loss to Creighton at the United Center on Friday was more than just an early exit.

It was a microcosm of the season.

"This is the epitome of our whole season," junior guard Justin Hamilton said. "This whole season we've been losing games we should have won. We didn't achieve any of the goals we set at the beginning of the year. Until we correct the things that have been haunting us all year, this is going to be the result."

The result was a 7-8 record to close out the season. Games in which the Gators were close, but just not close enough. Odd misfortunes. Critical mistakes. And most of all, an inability to win tight games.

When Creighton's Terrell Taylor put up the winning shot with .2 on the clock, most Gator followers this season never doubted he'd make the shot.

"I just looked down as soon as he shot it and I said, 'Oh, man, here we go again,' " freshman forward James White said.

Seven of Florida's nine losses were by a total of 18 points and the Gators were 3-6 in games decided by five points or fewer.

"That's how we've lost games all year," Donovan said. "Everybody's made shots against us. It was Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky. ... Outside of our defense at the end of the Alabama game where we broke down, guys have made shots. We've had a chance to make shots to win games and we haven't done it.

"I don't know what the reason is for it," he said. "I can tell you right now for my own personal development as a coach I will break down every second of this entire season to try to figure if there's anything that we as coaches can do better going into next year because I thought our guys competed, but we've been on the short end of a lot of those. I think sometimes coaches say, 'Well, it all equals out in the end.' I never believed that."

For the Gators, it didn't seem to equal out.

"It's kind of the thing that happened all season long," said junior guard Brett Nelson, who was 4-of-19 from the field and 2-of-10 from 3-point range in the Creighton game. "We could never close games out, and it seemed down the stretch we never got control of the game and that's been a trend this whole season."

At one point in the season, Florida had a 14-game winning streak and was ranked No. 2 in the country. Then came a three-game losing streak midway through the conference season, but the Gators rebounded and won four straight.

But Florida faltered during a 3-5 period down the stretch. Its bench was inconsistent: before Creighton, 74.1 percent of the offense came from starters.

Center Udonis Haslem was plagued with foul trouble in big games. In the last two games of his career, he played 39 minutes in regulation -- 18 against Mississippi State and 21 against Creighton.

And forward Matt Bonner was Florida's leading scorer with 16.4 points per game until the final three games of the season when he averaged 8.7 and shot 35.5 percent.

"I blame myself," Bonner said. "I didn't come out and perform like I should have. I obviously didn't do a good job as a captain leading the guys down the stretch. ... But I'm going to do my best job to get all the guys to learn everything they can from (Haslem) so we can come out next season and half this stuff won't happen."

The Florida players said the toughest part about Friday's loss was letting Haslem down. He was the team's only senior.

"This was Udonis Haslem's last game and nobody wanted him to go out this way," White said. "We have the talent to be a Final Four team. It wasn't just one thing, it was a lot of things. This was a great team that should have done better."

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