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Gators, Tar Heels Go Forth

East Regional: Florida's youngsters perform in the face of Oklahoma State's experience to pull out an exhausting 77-65 victory.


SYRACUSE, N.Y. — It turns out there's a big advantage to having only one senior on your team.

After Florida Coach Billy Donovan took the final snip of the net to celebrate his team's 77-65 victory over experienced Oklahoma State in the East Regional final Sunday, he did not face a difficult decision about who should receive the nylon souvenir of the school's second trip to the Final Four.

"Where's Weaks?" Donovan asked, looking around the Carrier Dome court for Kenyan Weaks. "Where's Weaks?"

Donovan finally tracked down the player and tossed him the net.

"That's for you," Donovan said.

With only one senior, it was an easy choice. Weaks had been around the longest, he got the net. Case closed. See you in Indianapolis.

Now if Donovan had to choose the most deserving underclassmen, that would be tough.

Would the net be given to sophomore Mike Miller, who scored a team-high 14 points? Would it go to freshman Brett Nelson, who had nine points and four assists? Or sophomore Udonis Haslem, who provided much of the inside presence with 10 points? What about freshman Donnell Harvey, who had 10 points, six rebounds and a five-point outburst that helped Florida pull away from Oklahoma State for good?

Youth had its day and had its way with Oklahoma State. The Gators (28-7) dispelled the notion that the veteran leadership of Oklahoma State's seven seniors would give the Cowboys an edge. It turned out the only difference their senior status made was that the loss didn't just end their season, it ended their college careers.

"We might be faced with a little rebuilding next year," said Cowboy Coach Eddie Sutton, whose top scorer (Desmond Mason), passer (Doug Gottlieb) and rebounder (Brian Montanati) are among those departing. "I hope that our rookies can play as well as the Gator rookies, because their rookies are really good basketball players."

Freshmen accounted for 23 of Florida's 43 points in the first half, when the Gators scored 28 points in a little more than nine minutes and took a 15-point lead before halftime.

So much for experience. But Florida's supposed edge--its depth and the ability to wear out opponents--wasn't a factor, either.

Donovan sensed his team was emotionally and physically drained after its dramatic victory over No. 1-seeded Duke on Friday. He even took off his full-court press in the second half.

"I think we just tried for the last eight minutes to grind the game out with them," Donovan said. "They were exhausted. I think we were exhausted too. I can't say that we did a great job wearing down Oklahoma State. I think both teams were certainly feeling the fatigue factor from playing very difficult games Friday. But I cannot speak enough about the character of these kids and what they've been able to do at such a young age, and their focus and their commitment to winning."

Donovan was so concerned with the fatigue factor he consulted a motivational speaker to help his players find an additional source of drive and energy. He decided to ask the players to think of someone who helped get them to this point and to play this game for them.

"I think when you're playing or doing something for someone you love, you have a tendency to dig down a little bit deeper," Donovan said.

So with reminders such as "Mom" and "Grandma" written on their ankle tape, the Gators fought through the most critical stages of the game.

They led by 17 early in the second half, but scored only six points over 8 1/2 minutes.

They had survived an earlier dry spell of two points in 8 1/2 minutes during the first half because Oklahoma State also had trouble scoring.

This time the Cowboys (27-7) had a quick flurry of back-to-back three-point baskets followed by a steal and breakaway dunk to knock off eight points in less than a minute. Florida's offense came to a standstill and the Cowboys kept chipping away. A three-point shot by Glendon Alexander made it 56-53, Florida, with eight minutes remaining.

Free throws by Teddy Dupay and Miller, and a three-point basket by Miller restored a double-digit lead.

Oklahoma State pulled within eight points inside of five minutes.

But Harvey took an inside feed for a dunk, made a free throw, then got a step on his defender for an emphatic left-handed slam that made it a 13-point game. The Cowboys were finished.

"When you're playing catch-up against a good ballclub, you use up so much energy that sometimes you don't quite have enough to get over the hump," Sutton said.

Oklahoma State also had trouble scoring against Florida's half-court defense and shot 42%. When the Gators did use the press it gave the Cowboys little trouble as they successfully threw over it for easy layups.

In the half-court set, they couldn't manage enough scoring opportunities for Mason. He took only eight shots from the field, made two, and finished with nine points. Joe Adkins (four for 14) also struggled with his shooting.

The Gators shot twice as many free throws, making 19 of 24.

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