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Baby Face Nelson is this good

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000

INDIANAPOLIS -- He is a man very much like his team. At times, that is the worst possible thing you can say about Brett Nelson.

At times such as those, you can see the youth in Nelson's face, not to mention his game. He seems wide of eye and slack of jaw, a half-step from control. It is at such times you get these cockamamie drives to the basket of his, one half willy and one half nilly, or these off-balance jumpers that seem more prayer than plot.

It is at times such as these, and there were so many of them in the first half of Saturday night's NCAA semifinal, that you remember Nelson is a very young fish in a very big sea. He is a freshman, a year removed from high school basketball, and he is playing on a team that is comprised of other kids who, frankly, aren't old enough to be up this late.

He is a man very much like his team. At times, that is also the finest compliment you can say about Nelson.

At times such as those, you can see the steel in the kid's eyes, the set of his jaw. He seems comfortable in such moments, as if he has retaken control of the world rather than the other way around. It is at such times that he is the best possible Florida Gator to have the basketball in his hands.

It is at times such as these, and there were so many of them in the late going of a 71-59 victory over North Carolina, that you remember that no one ever said a player had to be old, what he has to be is good. It is at times such as this you realize the Gators are one victory from a national championship.

We will pause here while you ponder the ramifications.

The national championship? The Gators? In basketball? In this lifetime?

Florida earned its slot by wearing down North Carolina, a kid shooting down another famous gunfighter. Once more, the Gators' depth wilted the Tar Heels. Florida with more players than North Carolina, the training grounds of Jordan and Carter and a thousand other All-Americans. Who ever would have believed it?

Turns out, these kids would. Basketball is no longer about name, it's about game. It's not about who used to play where. It's about who plays there now. And who will play Monday night.

This time, it was Nelson's turn. This time, it was up to the kid from West Virginia to lead the cavalry.

Nelson has had his moments in this tournament, but none when his team needed it more. It was early in the second half, and North Carolina had claimed the game as its own. Despite a 15-point deficit early, freshman Joseph Forte had shot the Tar Heels back into the lead. Carolina had taken a 48-44 lead, and the Gators seemed to be wilting. Mike Miller (3-of-13) struggled all night, and Teddy Dupay (1-of-8) never found his range.

But then there was Nelson, the kid who admits that as recently as a few weeks ago, he didn't recognize the difference between a good shot and a bad one. When he was in West Virginia, heck, there was no such thing as a bad shot if Nelson was taking it.

So he tore down the right side of the lane, and he fed the ball to Udonis Haslem with a deft little pass, and Haslem dunked the ball. The deficit was down to two.

Carolina scored again, but then Nelson hit a jump shot, just inside the three-point arc, and it was 50-48. A few seconds later, Nelson set out for the basket again, then pulled up and fed Haslem again. Tie score.

It was his game now. Nelson hit a jumper, then another, the second one for three. Five plays inside four minutes, and the Gators were ahead 58-53, and by now, they were that wild, harassing team on defense again.

"Brett's play certainly opened it up," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I think we got the game back in transition. When we can score, we can press."

For much of this season, it appeared Nelson was over his head as a freshman. He had been a headline recruit, compared to Jerry West even before he left high school. But early in the season he struggled. "I didn't know the difference between a good shot and a bad one," he said. "Coach told me to keep my head up, that I'd break through it."

The tournament seems like a good place to start. Nelson was superb against Illinois and Duke. But on those nights, there were other elements to the offense., Against North Carolina, where every bucket seemed to come hard, it was the perfect time for Nelson to grow up.

"'It was just the style of our offense," Nelson said simply. "I was shooting the ball through open looks. I get a good sweat going, I get into the rhythm of the game."

That's the simple way to put it. But in basketball, it isn't about what you do. It's about when you do it. Nelson made every critical play for the Gators in the moments they could have faded and been happy with a Final Four appearance. Instead, he shot his team into the lead, and he enabled it to turn the game, once more, into the track meet it prefers.

Time was, you would have expected someone in the light blue jerseys to make a play such as that. Jordan maybe. Or Carter. Or Phil Ford or Jerry Stackhouse or James Worthy. No more. Now, it's the kids from Florida, who want it all, who want it now.

These days, the sky is a deeper shade of blue.

One more game, and the color of college basketball is, too.

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