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In Gator flop, UF's troops don't defend

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2000


LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Facing some of the poorest shooting Kentucky Wildcats you'll ever see, the Florida Gators labored to an 11-9 lead. Mediocrity was about to turn to calamity. For six deadly Saturday minutes, the Gainesville guys would be aimless, mindless and hopeless.

Being outscored 31-10.

Florida had the look of America's eighth-worst team. Mike Miller missed every shot, including two layups. Gators were butchered 20-2 in the paint and 18-2 off the bench.

Were they that intimidated?

Seven national championship banners strut in Rupp Arena's ceiling. Up there in Big Blue heaven are 33 retired jerseys of wondrous Wildcats from Beard to Hagan to Issel to Mashburn.

Also memorialized on Lexington high are Kentucky coaches Pitino, Hall and Rupp, who won NCAA Tournaments. Squeezed for arena-top space, the Wildcats opted not to honor 40 seasons of finishing No. 1 in the Southeastern Conference.

History so imposing.

"You're always concerned, coming into Rupp Arena," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who for five years was a UK assistant to Rick Pitino. "Our players are predominantly young. Going out before 24,000 is a different level of challenge. This isn't Alabama or Ole Miss."

Florida is 6-37 for all-time hoops visits to UK. "But, nah," Donovan swore, shaking a well-groomed head, "I do not think we were intimidated by Kentucky's great basketball past."

Whatever's to blame, those half-dozen flop minutes erased hopes of the Gators hogging instead of sharing the regular-season championship. They muffed a first-round conference tournament bye. National polls will give Florida a Top 10 heave ho. Seeding in the NCAA Tournament will suffer.

"Our plan, with Kentucky shooting only 42 percent -- 28 percent on three-point attempts -- was to pack in our zone and make the Wildcats hit from outside," Donovan said. "But when we went sour, physically and mentally, Kentucky answered with its hottest half of shooting all season." UK hit 53 percent; 43 percent on threes.

Like those 'Cats in the rafters.

Tayshaun Prince had a Michael Jordan kind of run, including two dunks and three threes. Saul Smith's three-point shooting had been in a 4-for-26 slump, but suddenly he ripped two in a row. Those first 20 minutes were Kentucky's best half of a 30-game season. Florida was at its worst.

Catch-up too much to ask.

In the final lopsided minutes, Rupp Arena thousands mocked the "Gator Chomp." A chant of "Over!" was followed by "Rated!"

Wildcats coach Tubby Smith said, "Our fans played a big part."

Lucky for the Gators, they get to play SEC and NCAA tournament games in neutral settings. Donovan has been puny on the courts of ranked opponents. Kentucky, a mere No. 22 in the AP poll, dropped Billy to 1-14 away from home against Top 25 teams.

Still, this Rupp Arena experience shouldn't be classified as wall-to-wall Florida bad. Even in a 15-point flameout, the Gators passed vital exams. When embarrassed, engulfed and crowd-berated, the Donovans refused a no mas attitude. Instead of quit, they showed grit.

Miller, a gifted 6-8 sophomore, had more to prove than anybody in Billy's troop, having contributed a piddling three free throws in the first 20 minutes. "If we're going to win championships," Miller said, "we've got to play two halves. Before halftime, I was a non-factor."

Donovan gave the Gators a locker room barbecuing. Kentucky, after being flattened 90-73 on Florida's floor, had a startling 43-24 halftime bulge. Billy got in Miller's face, in Brett Nelson's ear and on Udonis Haslem's back.

"Our kids have huge pride," Donovan said. "They knew what a poor half we'd played. Even after falling further behind, down by 26, our guys hustled and delivered solid basketball. Cutting the deficit to 70-60. Miller began finding opportunities and delivering, scoring 17 in the second half.

"We don't like not being solo SEC champs, but this isn't a worthless trip if we grow and do much better the next time we're severely tested. Maturity can come in tough, little doses. I saw a lot of second-half spunk, but we'd dug a hole too deep. After it was over, I told our players there'll be no more sharing of any championships.

"We're headed for the SEC and then the NCAA tournaments. There, you share nothing. You either win it all by yourself or you get eliminated." Florida could win the SEC tournament. Could reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA.

I mean, with no more six-minute disappearances.

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