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Gritty Gators focused on tough finish

With three Top 15 teams coming to Gainesville, UF has a chance to shine or fold.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001


GAINESVILLE -- After battling all manner of adversity -- from four surgeries to seven games decided in the final seconds -- Florida remains in the hunt for the Southeastern Conference title with two weeks left in the regular season.

The Gators' reward?

A tour of the Top 15.

In its final four games, No. 7 Florida faces three schools vying for the SEC championship: No. 15 Ole Miss tonight, No. 14 Alabama on Saturday and No. 13 Kentucky on March 4.

"The SEC regular-season championship is at stake," sophomore guard Brett Nelson said. "We just have to go out and worry about ourselves and win these four games. We have our work cut out for us."

Florida (18-5, 8-4 SEC) has overcome a season-ending knee injury to guard Justin Hamilton and the temporary losses of guard Teddy Dupay to back surgery and forward Brent Wright to foot and thumb surgeries. After a 1-3 conference start, the Gators have won seven of eight.

An 88-82 victory at Tennessee on Sunday -- UF's league-best fifth road win -- set the stage for a pressure-packed finish. Not only is the Gators' goal of repeating as league champion at stake, so is their SEC Tournament seed, and perhaps an NCAA Tournament bid.

"I still think there are a lot of things that could shake down in our league," coach Billy Donovan said. "But if you get caught not focusing on today, you distract your team and take away from what you really need to do."

Ole Miss and Alabama are the top teams in the SEC's Western Division and two of the season's biggest surprises. Kentucky has rebounded from a rough start to win 14 of its past 16, including a 71-70 victory over Florida on Feb. 6 on Tayshaun Prince's hook shot with 3.3 seconds left.

The good news for Florida is all three opponents must visit the O'Connell Center. The bad news is the remaining road game is at Vanderbilt, where UF won once in the 1990s. Many teams have difficulty adjusting to Memorial Gymnasium, where benches are behind the end lines rather than on the side.

"We know it's getting tougher, but that's what we expected," junior center Udonis Haslem said. "We're starting to jell, and we're a better team than we were earlier in the year. We're starting to trust each other and believe in each other, and that's the most important thing. We're prepared for these tougher games."

Kentucky, however, is in control. For a chance to share the title, the Gators need UK to lose at least once before coming to Gainesville for the season finale.

"We can't worry about what other teams do," Nelson said. "It doesn't matter whether Kentucky loses if we don't beat Ole Miss."

If Florida falls short of winning the SEC -- a possibility even if it wins its final four games -- there is a worthwhile prize for being runner-up. The top two teams in each division receive first-round byes in the SEC Tournament. And though most would expect the 2000 NCAA Tournament runner-up to be among this year's 65-team field with 18 victories, a strong finish would erase any doubts.

"As you get to the middle and end of February, people want to talk about March," Donovan said. "I'm not going to get into all that with our guys yet. We'll get to a point in the season where every game is do or die, but we're not at that point right now.

"Our total focus needs to be on Ole Miss. We still have four games and one game in the SEC Tournament, and that's all we know we're guaranteed. I've always believed that if you take care of the conference schedule in the last two weeks, you get paid off."

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