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Gators are caught napping

Frustrated and fatigued, Florida falls to Ole Miss 74-69 in an SEC tournament semifinal, possibly at the cost of a No. 1 seed.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


photo
[AP photo]
The Gator bench watches as time runs out in their semifinal loss to Mississippi.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The signs were classic.

But even more telling than the missed free throws and the long-range jump shots that hit the front of the rim was Florida's reaction to them. Suddenly, players who routinely shrugged off adversity had slumped shoulders.

The team was frustrated.

It was defensive.

It was plain ol' tired.

Playing on less than 24 hours of rest, No. 5 Florida exited the SEC tournament with a 74-69 semifinal loss to No. 14 Mississippi on Saturday at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.

The loss snapped UF's league-best eight-game winning streak and seven-game streak against ranked opponents.

"We did not deserve to win the game," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "Our guys hung their heads with missed free throws and missed shots and showed some frustration.

"It was disappointing."

The Gators (23-6) might have earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a three-game sweep of the league event, but likely will be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed when the bracket is announced today.

"Last year we were a No. 5 seed and played for the national championship," Donovan said. "I really don't get caught up in that. You're going to play good teams every single night, and you better be prepared to play."

Mississippi (25-6) avenged a 75-55 loss Feb. 21 in Gainesville to reach the SEC final for the first time since 1990. The Rebels play No. 15 Kentucky at 1 p.m. today in a clash of the league's top-seeded division champions.

"This was one of the hardest games we have played," said Rebels coach Rod Barnes, the SEC Coach of the Year. "We're just fortunate to have great kids."

Normally, that is Donovan's line.

All season, he praised the Gators for their resiliency, for never making excuses and for finding ways to win despite injuries to three key players. He did it Friday, when UF pulled out a gritty, physical 69-61 victory against Alabama.

Saturday, that changed.

When things didn't go right, the Gators pouted. They rolled their eyes. They whined. When knocked to the floor, they sat for a second or two before getting up.

"That's the thing that was so disappointing," Donovan said. "I talked in great detail (Friday) about the character of our guys, and in less than 24 hours our heart and character weren't where they needed to be. That's a great lesson for our kids going into the NCAA Tournament."

Plenty can be attributed to fatigue.

Center Udonis Haslem missed his first four free throws, six of his first eight. Shooting guard Teddy Dupay was 3-for-10 from the floor. Forward Matt Bonner got into first-half foul trouble. For the first time in six games, UF trailed at halftime, 40-34.

"We didn't have a good attitude," said guard Brett Nelson, who missed a layup with nine seconds left that would have pulled UF within 72-71 when the ball rolled off the side of his hand. "We did a lot of things we don't usually do."

Mississippi took its biggest lead, 64-57 with 7:55 left, on consecutive three-pointers by Aaron Harper and Jason Holmes. Florida tied the score at 65 on Haslem's basket with 4:25 left, but the rally, like the Gators, lacked stamina.

With UF trailing 66-65, Bonner came up short on a three-pointer. Trailing 69-67, Dupay did the same. A minute later, Haslem's baby hook bounced off the front of the rim. Nelson missed the layup.

Florida, the league's best free-throw shooting team at 74 percent, was 14-for-25.

Haslem led the Gators with 20 points and 14 rebounds. Mississippi got 15 from Justin Reed, 13 from Holmes and 11 each from Harper and Rahim Lockhart.

Irritable after losing for just the second time in 14 games, the Gators had no explanation for the uncharacteristic miscues. They flatly refused to admit fatigue played any part.

At least, not physical fatigue.

"We were tired mentally," Bonner said. "Maybe people get moody when they're tired."

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