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UF seizes share

The Gators tie Kentucky for the SEC title by beating the Wildcats 94-86.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Florida's Udonis Haslem, who had 20 points, shoots above Kentucky's Marvin Stone.
GAINESVILLE -- Florida seniors Brent Wright and Major Parker scaled opposite sides of a rickety wooden ladder, their teammates steadying it for every step, to snip the final few strands of netting.

A precious souvenir.

A remarkable climb.

Written off six weeks ago, No. 6 Florida battled back to win a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship with Sunday's 94-86 victory against No. 15 Kentucky before a record 12,511 at the O'Connell Center.

"I don't know if there are many teams that could do what these kids have done," said coach Billy Donovan, who got his 100th victory at UF. "This team's belief and faith and strength are what it's all about. I'm so proud because of what we had to overcome."

The Gators (22-5, 12-4) rebounded from injuries to three starters and a 1-3 record in league play to win 11 of 12 and share the championship for the second consecutive season. UF, which also won in 1989, denied Kentucky (19-9, 12-4) the title outright.

"We definitely fought back for a reason," said UF center Udonis Haslem, who had 20 points and nine rebounds. "We're not beating our chests, but winning 11 of 12 in one of the toughest conferences in the country sends a message."

On an emotional day on many levels, Florida honored seniors Wright and Parker in a teary pre-game ceremony, then channeled its emotions into a dominating performance. Sparked by 6-of-7 three-point shooting, the Gators led 26-11 at the 8:18 mark.

UF never trailed.

While the Wildcats struggled offensively, Florida shot 64.7 percent (11-of-17) from three-point range, the highest percentage in Donovan's five seasons. Guard Teddy Dupay was 5-of-6 in matching a career-high 28 points.

"We didn't have an answer for defending their three-point shooting," said UK coach Tubby Smith, whose team will be the Eastern Division's No. 1 seed ahead of Florida in the SEC Tournament because of a 7-1 division mark. "They made some big-time shots."

Despite 7-of-27 three-point shooting, Kentucky trimmed the margin to seven points seven times, including 38-31 at halftime. Led by guard Keith Bogans, who scored 22 of his game-high 29 in the second half, UK got within seven four times in the final four minutes.

But Florida, which had begun to show signs of fatigue against the deeper Wildcats, answered each run as Brett Nelson hit a three, Dupay made two free throws, Matt Bonner hit a three and Parker made a free throw in taking turns rebuilding UF's lead.

"This was an emotional win because of everything we have been through," Donovan said. "If I had said we would be playing Kentucky for the SEC championship, people would have laughed."

Wright, who had not played since aggravating his injured right foot Feb. 21, started the game but came out after four seconds. With UF leading 94-84, he returned for one second so that he could exit his final home game to the roar of appreciative fans.

"I thought he deserved that," Donovan said.

Addressing the crowd afterward, Donovan thanked his family, assistant coaches, players and the fans before turning over the microphone to Wright and Parker. The first players to sign with Donovan at UF, they spoke proudly of a budding Gators dynasty.

"When we came here, we wanted to start a dynasty and leave a legacy," Wright said. "It took some trust in Coach Donovan, but we started something good."

Finished it, too.

Six weeks after a 1-3 start in the SEC, the Gators have hopes of playing their way into a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

And getting better.

"There is always room for improvement," Donovan said. "I can't sit here and say we've tapped out. These guys will tell you I'm always on them about something.

"But they have to stay humble. They cannot embrace this because the season has just started, right now. Certainly, they need to enjoy this great accomplishment, but tomorrow is another day."

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