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Gators get the bounce

The last-second shot goes UF's way, for a change, as Mike Miller's layup stuns Butler in the opener.

[AP photo]
Gator players pile on top of each other in the court after the game-winning shot beat the buzzer.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2000


WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The last time Florida was in an NCAA Tournament locker room, it was crushed. The Gators sobbed again Friday, at the mercy of an emotion just as crushing.

Ecstasy.

Tears flowed, and no one fought them.

"You'd have thought we lost," UF guard Teddy Dupay said. "It's an amazing feeling to win a game like that."

Mike Miller's driving layup, released with three-tenths of a second left in overtime, bounced in at the buzzer to give Florida a 69-68 men's basketball victory against Butler in the first round of the East Region.

"That's a play we work on every day in practice," said Miller, who took the ball with four seconds left, drove the lane and softly guided the ball to the rim. "We talked a lot about not settling for a long jump shot. I penetrated, tried to go over the top of somebody and it went in."

Not that Miller saw it.

Being sure to avoid a charging foul, Miller missed the Gators' first lucky bounce of the season after several last-possession failures. The reaction of his teammates told him the outcome. From the bottom of a mob-scene pile, Miller shouted to his teammates how much he loved them.

photo
[AP photo]
Mike Miller, left, cries as he is embraced by Kenyon Weaks after Miller nailed the game-winning shot Friday.
Meanwhile, coach Billy Donovan sweated an official's review to be sure Miller's shot was released before time expired. Even after the public-address announcer told the flabbergasted crowd of 14,252 at Joel Coliseum the basket was good, Donovan still had to ask: "Is it over?"

Last year, Florida lost to Gonzaga 73-72 in the Sweet 16 on a series of key mistakes in the final minute: a traveling violation, a failure to block out that resulted in the winning tip-in and a missed shot at the buzzer.

This year, UF showed maturity.

"I'm just so proud of our kids and the way they persevered and the character and the heart they showed," Donovan said. "I think some people doubted this basketball team. We're young right now, but I'm so proud of the way they competed and how badly they wanted to advance."

No. 5 seed Florida (25-7) plays No. 4 Illinois (22-9) Sunday, an intriguing matchup for Illini coach Lon Kruger, who led UF to the Final Four in 1994.

Miller led UF with 16 points and 13 rebounds, his fourth double double of the season, and set a UF record for rebounds in NCAA Tournament play.

In a tournament surprisingly void of upsets, Cinderella's slipper seemed to fit Butler. The Bulldogs negated the Gators' up-tempo style with smothering defense and patient offense, taking a 58-54 lead on a jumper by Joel Cornette with 1:28 left in the second half.

"When a team like Butler has a four-point lead on you in the last two minutes, against most teams that's like a 10-point lead," Donovan said. "Our guys made constant hustle play after hustle play all the way through and stuck together."

With 15.2 seconds left, Florida center Udonis Haslem hit two free throws to tie the score at 60. Bulldogs leading scorer LaVall Jordan missed a 15-foot jumper and the game went to overtime.

Butler senior Andrew Graves, who led all scorers with 20, hit a deep three-pointer for a 68-65 lead with 1:32 left. But UF cut it to 68-67 on a layup by Kenyan Weaks, then sent Jordan to the free-throw line with 8.1 seconds left.

Jordan missed twice.

The day before, Jordan attended the funeral of his great-aunt, Jetha Jeffers, who raised him in Albion, Mich. When Miller's shot fell, Jordan collapsed to the floor.

"I told him in the locker room that these things happen for a reason, and sometimes we don't know what the reasons are," Butler coach Barry Collier said through tears. "Maybe God wants to make him tougher."

Without a timeout, Donovan called to his players to execute "Homerun," the Gators' name for a selection of plays to chose from depending on how much time is left.

Miller delivered.

The Gators erupted.

"I was right under the net," said Weaks, UF's only senior. "My first reaction was it was the greatest play I'd ever seen. It's one of the greatest moments of my life."

Many times this season Florida failed to win in its final possession: an 81-79 double-overtime loss to Tennessee at home, a 71-69 loss at DePaul and a 76-73 overtime loss at Tennessee. Never did the Gators get the final shot they sought.

Until Friday.

"I've never been in a locker room after a game with the emotion level where it was," Donovan said. "Donnell Harvey was crying, Brent Wright was crying, Dupay was crying, Weaks -- I've never been a part of anything like that."

KANSAS 81, DEPAUL 77 (OT): Nick Bradford had 14 points and a key block in the waning seconds of overtime as the Jayhawks spoiled the Blue Demons' tournament return.

Kansas outscored DePaul 10-0 in the final 1:55. The Jayhawks went scoreless on their first four possessions of the extra period as the Blue Demons took a 77-71 lead on Paul McPherson's free throw with 2:23 left.

Kenny Gregory tied it at 77 when he stole an errant pass and went the length of the court for a dunk. Gregory was fouled and missed the free throw, but the Jayhawks got the rebound, leading to a driving layup by Bradford that put them ahead to stay 79-77 with 48 seconds left.

Gregory, who shot 11-for-12 for 22 points, blocked a short baseline jumper by Quentin Richardson with 46 seconds left to keep the score tied at 70 and help force overtime.

ILLINOIS 68, PENN 58: The Quakers took a calculated gamble, and Frank Williams made them pay.

Pennsylvania focused its perimeter defense on Cory Bradford, the Illini's top scoring threat, even if it meant giving Williams open looks.

Williams responded with the best game of his freshman season, a 21-point outing for Illinois (22-9).

"I was ready to take advantage of it," the 6-foot-3 guard said. "If you put me in any situation I think it's a matter of just how tough you can be. I have a big heart as a freshman and I'll keep trying to go at it."

Penn (21-8) cut its deficit to one early in the second half only to come up short in its bid for its first NCAA Tournament victory since 1994.

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