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Gators take sweet step

Florida and its outside shooters light up Illinois for 93 points on the way to earning an invitation to the Sweet 16.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2000


photo
[AP photo]
Florida coach Billy Donovan, center, shouts instructions to his team as the Gator bench cheers on the team Sunday.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Florida guard Teddy Dupay said he wishes he had a three-point basket for every time someone counted him out of the Gators backcourt mix this season.

Then again, maybe he does.

Feisty in a pinch, Dupay defiantly made four three-pointers to thrust himself into the spotlight and the Gators into the Sweet 16 with a 93-76 victory over Illinois on Sunday in the East Region at Joel Coliseum.

"People are always trying to write me off," said Dupay, who finished with 16 points. "My whole life has kind of been like that. I don't buy into that. I'm a big part of this team."

Fifth-seeded Florida, which escaped the first round on a buzzer-beating shot against Butler, advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season. The Gators (26-7) play top seed Duke (29-4) on Friday in Syracuse, N.Y.

"I'm just so happy for these guys with all the expectations that were put on them," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "These guys worked extremely hard to get to this point."

Perhaps no one harder than Dupay, a 5-foot-9 sharp-shooter who put his scoring urge on hold this season to fill UF's void at point guard.

By the time freshmen Brett Nelson and Justin Hamilton were ready to run the point, Dupay had a hard time shifting into his shooting mode.

"I talked to him a little bit about it," Donovan said. "I said, "Teddy, I've got you over at the 2-guard spot, you've got to start scoring. You've got to start making some shots. Otherwise, why am I putting you at the 2?' "

His three-point shooting was vital against Illinois, which used its physical style to pound Florida post players Udonis Haslem and Donnell Harvey in the first half.

The Gators' trump card was the kick pass to Dupay and Nelson, who matched Dupay in points and three-point shooting. UF was 9 of 18 beyond the arc.

"That's been our main focus all year, go inside first, make strong moves to the basket and if you get double-teamed, pass for shots," said Haslem, who scored 15. "We had the inside-outside game going."

Florida led 40-34 at halftime, and took control in the first five minutes of the second half by using its full-court pressure and transition offense to push the pace.

Dupay's three made it 53-41 with 15:25 left. Nelson's three made it 67-53 with 11:04 left.

"When all of us are knocking down shots, we're tough to beat," Nelson said.

Illinois never got closer than 10 as Florida made 13 of 16 free throws in the final 4:02.

"In the second half they got some good looks in transition and they were able to make their shots," said Illinois coach Lon Kruger, who coached the Gators for six seasons before leaving for the Illini. "They've got guys who can score inside and outside and they complement each other well."

Florida was led by Mike Miller's 19 points and nine rebounds, but got scoring from 10 players.

Illinois' Cory Bradford led all scorers with 27, including 5-of-10 from three-point range.

No one in Florida's locker room was surprised to see Dupay find his shooting touch, as he has so many times this season when it looked as though his role diminished.

Dupay leads the team with 59 threes but had just two in the previous four games.

"He's got tremendous confidence in himself." Donovan said. "If I take that away from Teddy, he can't play here. He's not good enough. But because of his heart, his character, his will to win, his desire and his competitiveness, it allows him to play here. I've got to keep that alive."

That, too, is the Gators' goal -- to stay alive. They celebrated wildly after Miller's shot fell in at the buzzer for a 69-68 victory against Butler, but Sunday's reaction was much more businesslike.

Florida reached the Sweet 16 last season, losing 73-72 to Gonzaga, and is determined to go deeper.

"I've seen a different look in everybody's eyes these last couple games that I haven't seen all year," Haslem said. "We talk about being focused, but our focus has gone up another level in the NCAA Tournament.

"That buzzer-beater has made us a close-knit group, crying and telling each other we love each other. We're as much of a team right now as I can see us being."

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