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The ultimate consolation prize: a trophy

Spurned by the NCAA, Florida is one victory from claiming the other post-season championship.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000


Looking back on the past two weeks, Florida senior forward Kelly Freeman can't help but wonder whether fate was being kind to the Gators when they were passed over for the NCAA women's basketball tournament.

Florida plays at Wisconsin tonight for the Women's NIT championship.

"I'm very excited about (the WNIT) now," Freeman said. "I'm not sure if we had gone to the NCAA Tournament we would have made it to the finals. Maybe somebody had a plan for us. We're all very excited. We can't wait to play."

Florida has been playing like a team on a mission since the WNIT began.

The Gators squeaked out wins over Dayton (four points) and Memphis (three), then rolled over Maryland and Arkansas by double figures.

The Gators were stunned when they weren't among the 64 teams selected to the NCAA Tournament, but Florida coach Carol Ross said she is not surprised that her team has responded by playing perhaps its best basketball of the season during WNIT competition.

"If you say you're going to play, then certainly you owe it to the fans and each other to do your very best," Ross said. "If you're going to sulk around and be disappointed about what didn't happen, then you do not agree to play in another tournament. I've never questioned this team's motivation to compete all season long.

"Now, with a championship dangling in front of them, I don't have any question about what they are going to do with the opportunity."

All but one of the Gators' games have been on the road. Wisconsin, the WNIT runner-up last season, has played every tournament game at home this season. That will not be a factor, the Gators say.

"We're not really tired," junior Tombi Bell said. "It's just one more game. The traveling has been fun. I would like to have played this game at home, but we'll have plenty of time to sleep on Thursday and Friday."

Of all the Gators, Bell has been the most outspoken about Florida's failure to make the NCAA Tournament. She has attempted to turn that anger into motivation.

Since the WNIT began, Bell has worn "NCAA" with a slash through it on one shoe and, "You're not good enough" written on the other.

"That's the message we got from the NCAA and I don't appreciate it," Bell said. "So every time I look down at my feet, it inspires me to work harder and push through. That is what has gotten me to the championship game, and hopefully that is what will get us a championship."

The Badgers are 7-1 in WNIT games. They beat Michigan State in the quarterfinals when seven players, including two starters, were suspended for a violation of team rules.

"They have an extremely strong frontcourt and it would be to our advantage to go up and down the court and play a 94-foot game," Ross said. "We don't want to get into the Big Ten style of banging inside and being physical."

Ross said her most important job tonight is to keep the players focused for one more game.

"They have to get in the mind-set that when you play for a championship, you have to go take it," Ross said. "They are a team that has had enough adversity and they deserve something good. What you deserve is not necessarily what you always get. We have to be in the mind-set to go take what we want -- and that's a championship."

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