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Wright frame of mind for Gators

Senior guard's return gives Florida a boost in those crucial, final minutes of games.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


GAINESVILLE -- Here's how it works.

The compression screw, inserted three weeks ago to repair a stress fracture, holds together the bone in Florida senior Brent Wright's foot. Wright, inserted in the final minutes of a close game, holds together the Gators.

It's called stability.

Playing for the first time since Jan. 4 surgery, Wright was the ultimate in stress relief during the final three pressure-packed minutes of No. 14 Florida's 65-63 victory at Auburn on Wednesday.

"He's a calming force," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "He understands the system and has been in a lot of close games. He provides confidence for our guys because, at 6 feet 9, he can handle, pass, shoot and defend."

All when it matters most.

With 2:52 left, Wright made a three-point basket from the corner for a 61-55 lead. When Auburn applied full-court pressure, Wright flashed to the middle of the floor and made diagonal passes. When the Tigers, trailing by two, diagrammed a potential game-tying isolation play to forward Adam Harrington in the final 2.5 seconds, Wright was there with one-on-one coverage.

"He is one of our leaders," sophomore guard Brett Nelson said. "It was good to have him back up in the lineup and, obviously, his experience was valuable down the stretch."

Coming off the bench, Wright had five points, three rebounds and one assist in 13 minutes, the maximum doctors would allow. After experiencing soreness Thursday, Wright likely will play the same amount today against South Carolina. But, as the Gators can attest, limited minutes are better than none.

In the SEC opener Jan. 7, three days after Wright's surgery, the Gators blew a 10-point lead against the Gamecocks in the final six minutes and lost 69-68 on a three-pointer at the buzzer.

"My teammates say they feel better when I am out there," said Wright, who has 79 starts. "It helps if I'm just doing the little things I can do, like rebounding and showing some leadership."

Wright averaged 15.9 points and 7.1 rebounds through the first 11 games. Donovan called him the country's most underrated player because of all the little things he did, without which Florida could not win.

Without him, UF was 1-3.

Wright's versatility includes the abilities to play the point in UF's full-court press, play stingy man-to-man defense, shoot from three-point range, handle the ball in open court, block out, make free throws and find the open man.

"Brent understands a lot of the things that don't show up on the stat sheet, from reading defenses to feeding the post to doing stuff in our press," Donovan said. "At the end of the game, Auburn was running all over the place trying to trap us, and Brent didn't panic."

Donovan knows panic when he sees it. Without Wright and injured junior guard Teddy Dupay, who had back surgery Jan. 10, the Gators lost back-to-back home games last week to Georgia and Vanderbilt because inexperienced players made mistakes in the closing minutes.

But Donovan does not want younger players such as Nelson, Matt Bonner, Orien Greene and LaDarius Halton -- whose late-game mistakes contributed to the Gators' SEC losses -- to relax now that Wright is back.

Florida (12-4, 2-3) has yet to play a ranked SEC opponent, though it will play four in the next month (No. 6 Tennessee twice, No. 18 Alabama and No. 19 Ole Miss), plus home and away games against much-improved Kentucky. Young players will be vital to UF's success. Or failure.

"I don't want our guys hiding behind him, thinking because Brent Wright is back they don't have to perform," Donovan said. "It should be the other way around. Our guys should be making it easier for him. Our team cannot feel a calmness and think, "Brent is playing limited time; we're okay now,' because we're not."

That's not how it works.

No. 14 Florida vs. South Carolina

WHEN/WHERE: 3 today; O'Connell Center, Gainesville.

TV/RADIO: Ch. 38; WDAE-AM 620.

RECORDS: USC 10-6, 2-3 SEC; UF 12-4, 2-3.

COACHES: USC -- Eddie Fogler (118-108, eighth season; 260-188 overall). UF -- Billy Donovan (90-53, fifth season; 125-73).

KEY PLAYERS: USC -- Tony Kitchings, C, 6-10 So. (10.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg); Aaron Lucas, G, 5-11 Jr. (10.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg); Jamel Bradley, G, 6-2 Jr. (10.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg); Marigonass Petravicius, F, 6-10 So. 8.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg). UF -- Udonis Haslem, C, 6-8 Jr. (17.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg); Matt Bonner, F, 6-9 So. (12.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg); Brett Nelson, G, 6-3 So. (13.4 ppg, 4.4 apg); Orien Greene, G, 6-4, Fr. (4.3 ppg, 3.1 apg).

NOTES: Three weeks ago, in the SEC opener for both teams, Travis Kraft hit a three-point basket at the buzzer for a 69-68 South Carolina victory in Columbia. It was the beginning of a trend. The Gators' five SEC games each have been decided by three points or fewer, nine points combined. The latest was a 65-63 victory at Auburn on Wednesday. UF senior Brent Wright, who missed four games with a stress fracture in his right foot, returned to play 13 minutes. ... With UF losing both of its SEC home games, Haslem virtually guaranteed victory: "We are not going to lose a third game at home. I don't see it happening. People say this is one of the toughest places to play ... and we have to step up to the plate." -- Compiled by JOANNE KORTH.

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