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Fate puts a hurting on basketball at UF

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2001


GAINESVILLE -- In the young coach's eyes, you see a hint of Washington at Valley Forge. Working hard to not become like Custer at the Little Big Horn.

A winter of hope has turned destructively cold for Florida Gators basketball. Three weeks ago, Billy Donovan was thinking championships, but now it's quorum.

The renowned recruiter is down to seven scholarship players. This is America's seventh-ranked college team, or what's left of it.

Donovan was coping with the premature fleeings of sophomore Mike Miller and freshman Donnell Harvey to the NBA, nicely perpetuating the glory of Florida finishing No. 2 to Michigan State nine months ago, when the injury gods turned especially vulgar.

Brent Wright, an escalating 6-foot-9 senior presence, was sidelined with a foot fracture. Teddy Dupay, a 5-11 junior gunner of considerable impact, suddenly winced. Herniated disc in his back, requiring surgery 10 days ago. Wright might return in mid-February; Dupay is more questionable.

Then, in Wednesday night's 75-72 loss to Georgia at the O'Connell Center, guard Justin Hamilton had a steal, drove for the hoop, but was smothered by a Bulldogs defender and crumbled to the floor in extreme pain. Blown ACL. "I've seen that look of horror in an athlete's eyes," Donovan said. The sophomore from Sarasota is gone for the season.

"Around the SEC, our rivals are smiling," said flamboyant sophomore Brett Nelson. "They smell blood in the water. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us. They can't wait to play the wounded Gators. We'll use every ounce of our sweat to make it as difficult for them as possible."

Today, the enemy is Vanderbilt, coming to Gainesville with now inflated opportunity, to a court on which the Gators are 36-3 the past two-plus seasons, knowing Billy D's quiver is desperately short of arrows. It's been 60 games since Florida absorbed back-to-back defeats, but this afternoon is a different strata of exam.

"We still won't use injuries as excuses, but there was a definite fatigue factor against Georgia," Donovan said. "We tired. We panicked a bit. There'll be no sympathy from Vandy or anybody we meet, nor should there be. I expect us to play our hardest."

They not only miss Miller, Harvey, Dupay, Wright and Hamilton, the Gators could use some magic from Hawkeye, Hot Lips and Radar. After the sweet ride of last season, the Gators rising to the national championship game at Indianapolis, their luck has turned from roses to crabgrass.

"God works in mysterious ways," said Donovan, once a Final Four guard at Providence. "We'll put our faith in him. Even with our obstacles, I think the University of Florida basketball program will grow from these experiences, becoming even stronger."

A year ago, as his Gators rose into the clouds, sharing the Southeastern Conference title, motoring to the Indiana experience against the overpowering Spartans, it was Donovan's habit to play his main guys 25 to 28 minutes. Now, with such manpower shortfall, the demand is 35 and up from Udonis Haslem, Nelson and Matt Bonner.

After losing Wright, the Gators went to South Carolina and lost by a point at the buzzer. Then, at Mississippi State, they won by one on a last-second shot by Nelson. Georgia was next and the 'Dogs were too experienced and solid to melt beneath the heat surviving Gators were able to apply.

Florida played its guts out. Donovan cannot ask more effort than his kids expended Wednesday night. After trailing by 10 points, they earned chances to steal it, but on three critical offensive trips in the final two minutes the well-gassed Gators did not even manage a legitimate shot.

Their ranking will slip from No. 7 in a few hours, dramatically so if the Gators don't find enough gusto and skills to beat the Commodores. Donovan's troupe is walking an icy, treacherous cliff. Breathing deeply. Searching. Trying to find ways to hold on for another three weeks or so, until Wright can maybe return.

Orien Greene, a talented but raw freshman, local hero from Gainesville, is being asked to grow up in a hurry. More so now, with Hamilton gone. His skills are explosive, but Greene also makes odious rookie mistakes.

Donovan has no choice but to throw the lithe, 6-4 kid into the SEC furnace. A year from now, Orien will maybe be well entrenched as a sophomore, after his battlefield promotion and foxhole experiences.

Miller is now with the Orlando Magic and Harvey a well-paid employee of the Dallas Mavericks. Modern coaches must deal with such boyish jumps to the pros. But when Wright and then Dupay went down, this season's Gators lost one-third of their fury, a combined 30 points and 9 rebounds a game.

It's now a skeleton crew.

Donovan is playing the hand fate has dealt him. No choice, really. If the Gators, who were 13-2 before meeting Georgia, can struggle to a 19-9 record or thereabouts, with health improving, by SEC tournament time in March, it could be Billy's highest accomplishment as coach/psychologist.

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