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Gators tough one out 69-61

Florida, behind Matt Bonner's career-best 22 points, survives a manhandling Alabama squad to reach today's SEC tournament semifinals.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Florida's medical staff has worked overtime during this injury-riddled season, but it might be time to add a specialist to the team.

A cut man.

Battered and bruised, No. 5 Florida survived a physical 69-61 victory against Alabama to reach the SEC tournament semifinals for the first time since 1995.

The Gators (23-5) play No. 14 Mississippi at 1 today at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.

"These kids continually amaze me with their character and heart and the stuff they have overcome," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "They keep finding ways to win."

Most of those ways involve making up for missing players.

Barely three minutes into the game, guard Teddy Dupay, who had back surgery in January, took an elbow to the back and went to the locker room. Ninety seconds later, as Dupay returned to the bench, guard LaDarius Halton took an elbow to the forehead.

Both players claimed the elbows were thrown intentionally.

"There's no doubt about it," Dupay said. "It's no accident that you punch someone in the back."

After sitting for several minutes with ice pressed to his head, Halton went to the locker room with severe swelling. Trainers made a small cut -- boxing-corner style -- to drain the bruise. Halton returned for the second half with a bandage.

"We're definitely the walking wounded, but we've got heart," Halton said.

The Gators also played much of the second half without All-SEC center Udonis Haslem, who sat at the 10:11 mark after picking up his second foul.

So, who was left?

Forward Matt Bonner.

Bonner, who has started 13 games this season mostly in place of oft-injured Brent Wright, had 19 first-half points and hit his first five from three-point range. He finished with a career-best 22 points and 11 rebounds, his ninth double double of the season.

"Basically nothing," Bonner said when asked what was going through his mind during the hot streak. "That's the key. Usually, people tell me I think too much, worry about too many things. My teammates did a great job finding me in open spots."

Florida took a 20-13 lead, then spent the rest of the game fighting off Alabama runs.

The Tide (21-10) cut the margin to three with 8:02 left in the first half, but Bonner's three-pointer with 3.7 seconds left restored the halftime lead to 41-33. Alabama opened the second half with a 9-3 run, but UF scored six straight to lead 50-42.

"Every time they got within one possession, we got a lot tougher and got the lead back up to a safe distance," Bonner said.

The Gators led 60-51 when Alabama made its final push, cutting the lead to three on a free throw by Erwin Dudley with 1:31 left. But the Gators were 5-of-6 from the free-throw line in the final 1:18 to seal it.

Alabama's Terrance Meade was called for an intentional foul against Nelson with 48 seconds left. After two made free throws, Florida ran off nearly 30 seconds before Alabama fouled with 19.5 seconds left.

Florida never trailed.

Nelson added 19 points and Haslem 12 for the Gators. Alabama's Travis Stinnet had 11, Erwin Dudley and Rod Grizzard 10 each.

"It was a prize fight, and two good teams went 15 rounds," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "We're disappointed."

Wright, a 6-feet-9 senior who has missed four games since aggravating his fractured right foot Feb. 21, went to New York City on Friday to be evaluated by a specialist. Donovan said he will announce Monday whether Wright can return for the NCAA Tournament.

"Hopefully, Brent can practice Monday and get a chance to play," Donovan said. "We're trying to do everything possible to get him back on the floor."

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