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Stumble sends Tampa down rugged path

By ROD GIPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001


It took 13 minutes to transform Tampa's post-season outlook. In that time, the Spartans' eight-point lead against Eckerd turned into a 67-63 loss in the season finale Wednesday night.

Now, instead of opening the Sunshine State Conference men's tournament as the top-seeded team, UT (21-5, 10-4) begins as the third seed against No. 6 Barry at 9:30 tonight at the Lakeland Center. In addition to the unenviable time, UT faces the Barry squad that ousted it from the tournament a season ago.

"Now we have to go to the tough bracket," UT coach Richard Schmidt said. "We have to gut up and go on and play."

UT does have some positives coming in, however. The Spartans own the top spot in the South Region. That could result in a region bid regardless of what happens in the conference tournament. The Spartans also have beaten the Buccaneers twice this season. And despite the season-ending loss, UT comes in with six wins in its past seven games.

"I'm upset about the way this ended," UT junior forward Gecarri Freeman said of the Eckerd loss. "But we can't do anything about that. We just have to keep playing, but I'm upset because I know we can play better."

Freeman is one of four UT starters scoring in double figures. He leads with 12 points a game. Forward James Mereus averages 11 and guard Jon Brown and center Sylvere Bryan 10 each.

Barry comes in off a 101-97 win against Lynn but has lost four of its past seven. Still, Barry has one of the conference's best offenses and its top scorers in Jason Junker (18 points per game) and Travon Broadway (15).

If UT gets past Barry, it could face Eckerd in the second round. Eckerd (21-6, 10-4), the No. 2 seed, faces No. 7 Saint Leo at 4:15 today. The Tritons are enjoying their second 20-win season and first since 1994-95. Dwayne Smith and Clevon Dunbar have combined to score 24 points a game.

So going into the tournament with two wins in its past three games, including the big win against UT, is a plus, right?

"Different people say different things," Eckerd coach Tom Ryan said. "Some say it's good to come in off a win, others say if you come in off a loss you play better. The fact is, anyone could get beat by anyone."

On the women's side, UT begins defense of its conference title as the fifth seed, facing No. 4 Barry at 2 p.m. today on the Florida Southern campus. The Spartans also enters off a loss, 80-73 to Eckerd on Wednesday.

"It's a real disappointment," UT coach Tom Mosca said. "It's a whole different deal for us now. We are in a situation where we may have to win this thing to get a (region) bid."

Coach Brian Shultes' Eckerd team is seeded No. 7 and faces No. 2 Florida Southern at 11:45 a.m.: "We're going in with a lot of confidence. We're improved and we feel like we can go in and step it up and beat these teams."

No. 8 Saint Leo plays No. 1 Rollins at 6:30 p.m.

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