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Gators get to go 4 it all

Florida advances to the Final Four for the second time in school history.

[AP photo]
Florida's Brent Wright, center, rubs head coach Billy Donovan's head while celebrating with teammates after their 77-65 victory over Oklahoma State.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000


SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Clutching a strand of net, freshman Donnell Harvey reflected upon all the things Florida overcame the past two weeks -- three higher-seeded teams, inexperience and skeptics -- and came to a reasonable conclusion.

"I guess we might as well win it now," he said.

photo
[AP photo]
Florida's Kenyan Weaks reacts after dunking during the second half of UF's victory.
Fifth-seeded Florida continued its mad march through the NCAA Tournament with a 77-65 victory over No. 3 Oklahoma State in the East Region final Sunday at the Carrier Dome.

Next stop: the Final Four.

Next goal: a national title.

Having joined the 1994 team as the only ones to reach the Final Four, Florida (28-7) plays South Region winner North Carolina (22-13), an eighth seed, in the second game of the national semifinals Saturday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

"Our goal was to go to the Final Four, but we're still not satisfied," said sophomore guard Teddy Dupay, cradling a souvenir game ball. "We definitely want to win two more games."

Oddly enough, the last Final Four step looked the easiest. The Gators barely survived 12th-seeded Butler with a buzzer-beater in the first round, rallied from seven down against fourth-seeded Illinois and stunned everyone but themselves coming from six down against top-ranked Duke. Fighting physical and emotional exhaustion, they flat pummeled Oklahoma State.

With dots and tape.

UF coach Billy Donovan, worried his team would be too tired to play BillyBall, asked each player to dedicate the game to someone special in his life, write the name on a piece of tape and fasten it around his ankle. Then, he took a felt-tip pen and drew a dot on everyone's sneakers. When they got tired, they would look down to see dots and tape.

"We had them dedicate this game to someone they love and someone who has put them in this position that when they watch this game, it would make them proud," said the 34-year-old coach. "When you're playing for someone you love, you have a tendency to dig down a little bit deeper."

Florida took its biggest lead, 50-33, early in the second half, but Oklahoma State's senior-laden team made a charge. The Cowboys (27-7) picked up the pressure in their half-court defense to fuel a 20-6 run. Glendon Alexander's three-pointer cut it to 56-53 with 7:47 left.

During a television timeout, Donovan called off the Gators' full-court press to conserve energy. Then, he urged his players to remember their pregame dedications.

"He got in our faces and told us to think about the people we were playing for," junior Brent Wright said. " That changed the game."

Sophomore Mike Miller made two free throws and hit a three-pointer, UF's first field goal in more than five minutes. Sophomore Udonis Haslem battled for an offensive putback. Then Harvey, the Gators' purest and strongest athlete, slammed the door.

His five-point offensive flurry started with a slam dunk. Then he made one of two free throws. He finished with a rim-rattling, arm-whipping, message-sending monster dunk. Just like that, the lead was 70-57 with 3:22 left, and the game was over.

"When you're playing catch-up against a good ballclub, you use up so much energy that sometimes you don't quite have enough to get over the hump," OSU coach Eddie Sutton said.

On a 10-point scale, Haslem said Harvey's dunk lacked originality: "Well, it wasn't real creative; I'd give it an 8.5, maybe a 9.0."

Donovan was a bit more appreciative.

"Donnell Harvey's energy completely opened up the game for us," Donovan said. "We were an exhausted team, but Donnell is one of the few guys who can be tired and still be an athletically superior player."

Everyone chipped in points. Miller, selected the region's most valuable player, led the way with 14; Haslem and Harvey 10; Kenyan Weaks, Brent Wright and Brett Nelson 9; Justin Hamilton 8.

Fredrik Jonzen led the Cowboys with 14.

The Gators might even have been too tired to celebrate. From the donning of hats and T-shirts to the cutting down of nets, the post-game scene was subdued.

"We've been containing our celebrations a little bit," junior Major Parker said. "Not to take anything away from going to the Final Four, that's been one of our goals. But we've got one more goal to fulfill, and that's winning the national championship."

Yep, they may as well.

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