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Battle of ages? Young Gators ready for test

Oklahoma State sends seven seniors to battle UF for a spot in the Final Four.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton herded his seniors to the media interview room on Saturday, and it took a shoehorn to squeeze them in front of the microphones.

There were seven.

A few minutes later, Florida paraded into the same spotlight, but it wasn't nearly so crowded for the Gators after lone senior Kenyan Weaks left with a nose bleed.

The poster team for college basketball's youth movement, No. 5 seed Florida will try to upend the savvy experience of No. 3 seed Oklahoma State in the East Region final at 5 p.m. today at the Carrier Dome. The winner goes to the Final Four.

"In this tournament, the fact they have seven seniors, it's absolutely huge, it's enormous," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "Looking at our basketball team, we have one, and every guy on our team has never been in this situation before. . . . We have our hands full."

This is new ground for Florida.

The Gators' 10-player rotation consists of Weaks, two juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen. None has come any closer to an Elite Eight game than his television set, and their debut comes two days after the emotional high of an 87-78 upset of top-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16.

"It's going to be a big challenge for our team," Donovan said. "You have to deal with the emotional part of it, plus you've got a new team you have to get to know in a very short period of time."

The Cowboys don't have Elite Eight experience either, but are long in the tooth by current college standards. Of their seven seniors, four start and two play significant roles off the bench. They also have Sutton, the only coach to take four schools to the NCAA Tournament -- Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State.

"I would think our guys understand that we've worked hard putting together a game plan and know what we have to do to win," Sutton said. "From that standpoint, having seniors, it's a real plus. But it's also a real plus having a group of thoroughbreds like Florida has. They're young, but they're very talented and they're well coached."

So, which would Sutton rather have for a one-game, winner-take-all showdown to go to the Final Four -- seniors or thoroughbreds? "Tough question," he said, pausing to think. "I'll take my team."

And Donovan will keep his. "I think these guys understand what's at stake; they've seen the NCAA Tournament live on TV," Donovan said. "But we can't get caught up in the moment and be afraid to make mistakes and afraid to make plays and be tentative and say, "This is for the Final Four.' I want our team to exude confidence and play to win the game."

The Gators don't see what all the fuss is about.

"I don't think because we're young that we can't come out and win," sophomore center Udonis Haslem said. "What's young got to do with us playing hard? What's young got to do with us being focused? What's young got to do with us executing down the stretch? We had to be focused to get to this point and we've become more mature."

Since escaping Butler in the first round on a buzzer-beater by sophomore Mike Miller, the Gators have aged with each game. They rallied from a seven-point deficit against Illinois in the second round, and a six-point deficit with four minutes left against Duke.

"The emotional experience of Butler brought those guys to a common page," said assistant coach John Pelphrey. "Roles got defined and guys got comfortable in those roles. Our guys have grown up."

Though Donovan is in the NCAA Tournament for the second time as a head coach, he can relate to his players based on his experience playing in the 1987 Final Four as a senior at Providence.

"I didn't appreciate what was happening because it was the first time in my career that Providence College went to the Final Four," Donovan said. "We had two straight losing seasons, went to the NIT and then to the NCAA Tournament. So, I can talk in terms of the emotions these guys are going through."

And the Gators listen.

"We know we're young and we don't have all the answers," Haslem said. "That's where we turn to Coach for knowledge. He's been around this tournament and he knows what needs to be done. That's why we come in all-ears and are willing to listen to learn what we have to do to prepare to win this game."

Today's game

FLORIDA VS. OKLAHOMA STATE

WHEN/WHERE: 5 p.m.; Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N.Y.

TV/RADIO: Ch. 10; WQYK-AM 1010.

RECORDS: Oklahoma State 27-6; Florida 27-7.

COACHES: Oklahoma State -- Eddie Sutton (229-94, 10th season; 659-258 overall). Florida -- Billy Donovan (76-48, fourth season; 111-68).

KEY PLAYERS: Desmond Mason, F, 6-5 Sr. (18.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg); Doug Gottlieb, G, 6-1 Sr. (6.1 ppg, 8.7 apg); Brian Montonati, F, 6-10 Sr. (12.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg); Glendon Alexander, G, 6-3 Sr. (11.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg). Florida -- Mike Miller, F, 6-8 So. (14.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg); Udonis Haslem, C, 6-7 So. (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg); Brent Wright, F, 6-8 Jr. (8.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Teddy Dupay, G, 5-10 So. (9.1 ppg, 2.8 apg).

NOTES: Florida is making its second Elite Eight appearance, having reached the 1994 Final Four. Oklahoma State is in its ninth NCAA quarterfinal, first since reaching the 1995 Final Four. ... . Mason scored 54 points in two games in last year's NCAA Tournament. He has 59 points in three games this year, and ranks third on OSU's list of all-time NCAA Tournament scorers with 134. Gottlieb is the setup man. With 12 assists in Friday's 68-66 victory against Seton Hall, he passed Gary Payton for eighth on the Division I career assist list with 940. ... Florida and Oklahoma State have met once, a 74-69 UF victory on Dec. 28, 1993, in the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu. ... Sutton is 5-7 against Florida, including 5-6 at Kentucky from 1986-89. ... Perimeter defense will be a key. OSU's five post-season opponents have made just 23.7 percent from three-point range, while the Cowboys have made 38.8 to rank eighth. Dupay and Brett Nelson are a combined 14 of 25 from beyond the arc in the tournament.

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