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UF beats elite to be Elite
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2000
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Florida coach Billy Donovan told his team it had to be fearless against top-ranked Duke in the Sweet 16, but what happened Friday was downright scary.
The fifth-seeded Gators knocked off one of the most successful teams in NCAA Tournament history with a stunning 87-78 victory in the East Region semifinal at the Carrier Dome. Stunning, that is, to everyone but the Gators.
"There was a tremendous amount of emotion in the locker room, but we have another game to play," senior Kenyan Weaks said. "We didn't come here just to beat Duke, we came here to try to win two games and advance to the Final Four."
In handing the Blue Devils their first Sweet 16 loss since 1987, Florida advances to the Elite Eight for the second time in history. The Gators (27-7) play Oklahoma State at 5 p.m. Sunday for a berth in the Final Four.
"It's bigger news when Duke loses than when it wins, and I say that with absolute respect," Donovan said. "They have been a model of success the past 15 years. This is a great, great win, but I hope our kids can keep their focus. This is going to be short-lived."
That's what most would have said of the Gators' stay in Syracuse. Duke is an NCAA Tournament mainstay with 24 appearances, 67 victories and 12 Final Fours. Florida was thrilled to be making its first back-to-back Sweet 16 appearance.
But Friday, the teams looked like they had reversed roles.
The Gators made 30 of 64 shots, including 7-of-15 from three-point range. They overpowered Duke's vaunted half-court defense with a precision high-low post game. They drew charges in the lane. They refused to buckle.
Duke, meanwhile, struggled to make layups, missed eight free throws, committed 22 turnovers and made 3 of 19 three-pointers.
Freshman point guard Jason Williams, whose job it was to foil Florida's full-court pressure, was 1-of-9 from beyond the arc.
"They're a difficult team to play, and worthy of their victory," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The primary source of Florida's confidence was its steadfast belief that over the course of the game it could wear down the Blue Devils, who relied mostly on six players, with its 10-player rotation and relentless full-court trapping.
"They're a great team, the No. 1 seed and the No.1-ranked team at the end of the year," UF sophomore Mike Miller said. "But we've relied all season on playing for 40 minutes."
And it worked again.
Duke led 78-74 with 4:01 to play, but Shane Battier's free throws were the Blue Devils' last points. Florida pushed the pace on offense and took the lead for good on a fastbreak basket by Brent Wright with 2:09 left, then delivered a changeup on defense.
Gambling that Duke would be too tired to shoot from long range, the Gators switched from man-to-man to zone defense for the final four minutes. The Blue Devils failed to score on their final 10 possessions.
"I thought we played really well in the second half," Krzyzewski said. "We put ourselves in position to win. But in those last few minutes, they hit their shots and we didn't hit ours."
UF made 7 of 11 free throws in the final 1:38. Five Gators scored in double figures: Brett Nelson (15), Udonis Haslem (13), Teddy Dupay (12), Miller (10) and Wright (10). Florida's bench outscored Duke's 35-6. Blue Devils senior Battier led all scorers with 20. The Gators opened with surprising poise, hitting 8 of 12 and their first four three-point attempts. Nelson, a freshman backup point guard, sparked a 13-1 run with back-to-back threes and finished it with a field goal for a 20-13 lead with 12:06 left.
UF led 40-33 at halftime, but the margin lasted barely a minute as Duke scored the first seven points of the second half to tie it. The Blue Devils took their first lead since the 13-minute mark of the first half (56-54) on Nate James' putback with 12:31 left.
Duke was up six with 6:37 to play. But momentum, and most of the crowd, shifted to UF when Dupay tied it at 74 on a three-point play with 4:59 left.
"I've preached to the kids throughout the tournament to play fearless," Donovan said. "When you play against a Duke, sometimes you play to just hang on. We had to play to win. . . . You can't be afraid at the end of a game."
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