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Final frontier

The Gators, whose 10-man attack wears down UNC, are boldly going where no UF basketball team has gone before: the championship game. Their mission is to seek out and capture their first national title.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- In the end, it had nothing to do with the number of national championships, consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances or Final Four berths either team had. Saturday night, Florida had more of the only thing that mattered.

Bodies.

photo
[AP]
Mike Miller battles North Carolina's Joseph Forte for a rebound.
It's the Gators' specialty.

Using its depth and full-court pressure to fatigue yet another opponent, Florida beat tradition-rich North Carolina 71-59 in the national semifinals at the RCA Dome.

Florida (29-7) plays Michigan State (31-7) in the championship game Monday night. In their second Final Four, the Gators will appear in their first title game.

"We're extremely excited about having a chance to play for the national championship," coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm very, very pleased and proud of how hard our guys played."

Florida needed all of them.

The Tar Heels have 15 Final Four appearances, 80 NCAA Tournament victories and a record 26 consecutive tournament appearances. None of it mattered against the Gators.

"I think they just wore us out," UNC coach Bill Guthridge said.

As it has all season, Florida put its faith in a system that uses 10 players to apply full-court pressure and push the pace in an effort to wear teams down in the final minutes. Knowing North Carolina relies largely on six players, the Gators kept that faith -- even when it didn't seem to be working.

North Carolina (22-14) led 48-42 with 15:43 left, but two things happened to change the complexion of the game. Tar Heels senior guard Ed Cota picked up his fourth foul playing perimeter defense against freshman Brett Nelson, and Nelson made him pay.

Nelson hit a basket to pull UF within 50-48, then fed center Udonis Haslem for a fastbreak layup that tied the score at 50. Major Parker hit a three-pointer, the press forced a 10-second violation, and Nelson scored on consecutive trips. Teddy Dupay's 14-foot jumper gave UF a 62-54 lead with 6:51 left.

North Carolina didn't have the energy to fight back.

"Coach always told us, with our style of play that if we get down six or eight points, never give up," said Nelson, who led the Gators with 13 points off the bench. "With our press we can always get a steal and hit a three, and we're right back in it."

All 10 Florida players scored, with Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem adding 10 each. North Carolina center Brendan Haywood led all scorers with 20 points and had 12 rebounds.

Loose to start, Florida jumped to an 18-3 lead. The Tar Heels took a 3-2 lead on Haywood's dunk, but it was their only field goal in the first nine minutes as the Gators went on a 16-0 run.

Momentum shifted when UNC's Julius Peppers tangled with Parker in the open court and was called for a technical foul with the Tar Heels trailing 18-6. Senior Keynan Weaks, an 80-percent career free-throw shooter, missed both.

North Carolina responded with an 11-3 run, cutting its deficit to 21-17 with 7:49 left on back-to-back baskets by Haywood. Florida rebuilt the lead to 33-24 on a three-pointer by Justin Hamilton and a pair of free throws by Dupay.

The Tar Heels used an 8-2 run to pull within 35-34, but Donnell Harvey's free throws gave Florida a 37-34 halftime lead.

After its initial struggles, North Carolina used its inside size and strength to overpower the Gators. Haywood finished the half with 16 points and seven rebounds. Equally important was his presence in the middle of Carolina's zone, which forced the Gators to play offense a long way from the basket.

Florida was 4-of-17 from three-point range in the half, including a combined 0-of-8 by Miller and Dupay. Post players Harvey and Haslem had six and four points, respectively.

In battling Haywood, Florida's post players also got into foul trouble. Haslem, Harvey, Brent Wright and Matt Bonner each had two fouls at halftime. Harvey picked up his fourth with 15:22 left and Haslem his fourth with 9:35 left.

North Carolina freshman Joseph Forte, 0-of-8 in the first half, went on a scoring spree early in the second to give the Tar Heels their first lead since early in the game. His back-to-back field goals gave UNC a 42-40 lead with 16:59 left, and his back-to-back threes gave UNC its biggest lead at 48-42 with 15:43 left.

Then fatigue set in for the Tar Heels. UF went on a 20-6 run. Haywood, a force in the first half, scored only four points in the second, two on free throws.

"We tried to get the game going up and down the floor so he couldn't set up in the post," Donovan said. "In the first half, he did. And we were having a difficult time scoring in the post. But in the second half, the pace of the game changed."

The system worked again.

"It's a credit to our style of play," Miller said. "We knew coming in they only played six or seven guys, and it was important for us to attack that."

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