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UF fans take to the streets

Gators find March is a good month to celebrate, too, just like that other fall sport.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- There were seven of them, all standing on the median along University Avenue, near the University of Florida campus, screaming and dancing as cars whizzed passed. They did the Gator "chomp" and inharmoniously sang one school cheer after another.

They seemed oblivious that it was raining and that they were getting soaked.

For a school that is not used to having something big to celebrate in March, students and fans were determined to revel in Florida's Final Four berth Sunday night -- rain or shine.

"I had them going to the Final Four all the way," said a euphoric Keith Larkins, a freshman physics major.

Sports bars and popular watering holes near campus were packed with fans and students watching Florida defeat Oklahoma State 77-65 in the East Region final at Syracuse, N.Y. After finding no place to sit inside The Swamp, a restaurant and bar across the street from campus, Ferruh Erdogdu and Zekai Gumus, two Ph.D. candidates at UF, sat outside in the rain under an umbrella table and watched on a big-screen TV.

It was only when they saw lightning that they went inside and watched the rest of the game while standing.

"We were having fun watching (outside)," Erdogdu said. "The game was exciting, so we didn't want to come inside."

The Swamp and the Purple Porpoise, another popular bar about a block away, stayed hyped as the Gators led virtually the entire game. As early as 10:25 of the first half, when Mike Miller made a 360-degree spin move in the lane for a layup, a bartender at The Swamp said the Gators were a "team of destiny."

When Florida went up 50-34 in the second half, Lucas Austin, a junior journalism major who works at The Swamp, told his boss he was going to need the rest of the week off because he plans to join the Gators in Indianapolis for the Final Four this weekend.

"I told him last week that we were going," Austin said.

The trip looked iffy when OSU hit a three-pointer with about eight minutes left that pulled the Cowboys within 56-53. "Oh, no," groaned Kevin Allen, a 1996 graduate, who stood outside the Purple Porpoise.

But as the Gators pulled away down the stretch, Austin and his buddies at The Swamp ordered tequila shots all around. Then, as everyone counted down the final seconds by pounding in synch on their tables, they raised their plastic cups and toasted the victory.

"We're going," Allen said. "We're going to Indianapolis."

Outside, despite the steady rain, the celebration continued. Fans spilled out onto the sidewalks, screaming and repeating the same cheer, "It's great/to be/a Florida Gator." Passing cars honked in response.

Nearby, Larkins and friends held up a sign they made from a bed sheet that read: Final Four or Bust. "If we play like we did tonight," Austin said, "we're going to win the whole thing."

The signs and celebrating have become commonplace after football victories in October and November. Now Gator fans want to make it a March tradition as well.

"I remember my freshman year they gave out free student tickets (to games) and you could show up five minutes before tipoff and get a seat four rows from the floor," Austin said. "Now you have to show up three hours before the game to even get into the student section."

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