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Dispirited fans find consolation as No. 2

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Florida freshman Shayla Wheatley hugs Chris Catoe after the Gators lost the national championship game.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- They danced in the streets. They sang their school cheers. They mugged for all the TV cameras that descended upon this town to record their every move.

Things didn't turn out the way they had hoped when Michigan State rolled over Florida 89-76 in Monday night's NCAA title game. But Florida students and fans were determined to party -- one way or the other.

"We always try and have hope," Allison Liles, a senior from Clearwater, said minutes after the game. "We're happy that we're at least second place. It's just the spirit that we've come this far."

With the Gators having never reached the tournament final, fans and students were extraordinarily hyped. Hours before tipoff they packed every bar and restaurant along this city's main drag across from campus. There were long lines to get into some places and others were so jammed that they stopped letting people in more than an hour before tipoff.

At the Purple Porpoise, a popular student bar, there was standing room only. On tables. down the street at The Swamp, fans were squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder inside the restaurant and outside.

Gainesville police, bracing for a massive celebration, had 21 officers ready and the university's police department had 23 officers on standby.

The Gator Shop, which sells merchandise, had plans to re-open after the game and sell Florida national champions T-shirts.

But when the Gators fell behind by 15 points with just under eight minutes left, fans seemed to sense that their party plans were going to be scaled back. As the Spartans' lead continued to climb, Florida fans' hopes continued to sink.

But with 1:14 to go and the Gators all but finished, fans at Balls, another well-known bar, started chanting "It's great to be a Florida Gator." Down the street at The Swamp, fans belted out "Let's Go Gators, Let's Go."

"They played their best," said Josh Langley, a senior from Orlando. "That's all that counts."

As they did after Florida defeated Oklahoma State last weekend to advance to the Final Four, fans spilled out of bars and restaurants and into the streets after the game. They tried valiantly to hide their disappointment, but the handful of overturned trash cans along University Avenue was evidence of their heartbreak.

Fans crowded the sidewalk along University Avenue, still cheering and still dancing. So many people flooded N.W. 17th Street just outside of The Swamp that police closed off the street to traffic. Fans waved huge Gators flags, clamored in front of TV cameras and sang school cheers into the night.

As of midnight, police had not reported any incidents of violence or arrests.

"You can't go wrong cheering for the Gators," said Karon Holmes, a junior from Apopka. "Even when we were down, we were having fun."

Part of the reason fans weren't overly crushed was that the Gators weren't expected to get to the final from the beginning. They were picked as a contender after reaching the Sweet 16 last year.

But hardly anyone figured they would play for their first national title this season with a team composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores. Florida's youth and inexperience showed at times against Michigan State, which left several UF fans dreaming of next season instead of wallowing in Monday's loss.

"Wait 'til next year," said Jason Terech, a junior from Buffalo, N.Y.

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