Underdog Gators aim for final four

After reaching three straight final fours, UF has missed the last two.

Published: Monday, July 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2002 at 1:37 p.m.

It used to be that final four appearances weren't enough for Florida. The Gators were thirsty for final four wins and national title matches. But over the last couple years, Florida has been forced backward, forced into a simpler goal.

Simply reaching the final four.

The Gators have been stopped short of that achievement the last two years after reaching the NCAA final four three consecutive years (1996-'98). They fell one win shy of the final four in 1999, then two short last year. This weekend in Lincoln, Neb., Florida hopes to erase that trend, push this proud program over its latest hurdle and head to the final four at Cox Arena in San Diego.

Still, that won't be easy. A team which is 27-1 overall and is riding a 25-match winning streak goes to Lincoln as the underdog. It's not a familiar role for coach Mary Wise and the Gators.

"Going in playing Pepperdine, we're definitely the underdog," junior Nicole McCray said. "Everybody needs to come out with their 'A' game and their briefcases and hopefully we'll win."

Tenth-seed Florida faces No. 7 seed Pepperdine in the Regional semifinals tonight at 6 p.m. while No. 15 Colorado State faces host and second-seed Nebraska at 8 p.m. The winners will play for a Final Four berth Saturday at 8 p.m. Florida is very familiar with all three teams playing in Lincoln. The Gators lost 3-0 to Pepperdine and 3-1 to Colorado State last year in the O'Connell Center while also falling to the Cornhuskers in an exhibition match this past spring. Wise says there's nothing wrong with the Gators playing the unfamiliar role of the underdog.

"I think if we use it to our advantage, it could help," Wise said. "It still comes down to execution. The Tennessee football team thought they were the underdog (against Florida), but it still comes back to execution."

Florida historically stumbles against more talented teams. Wise is a combined 2-7 against Nebraska, CSU and Pepperdine in her Florida career.

"That goes right into your underdog category," Wise said. "Certain teams have had better talent. There hasn't been a time we've lost, maybe once in '95, when I felt like we had more talent than the other team. I think we've won with less talent. But the losses have been because the other team had more talent. I mean, these are good teams. They're good."

Heck, the Gators aren't not too bad themselves. With a talented pair of middle blockers in McCray and Benavia Jenkins and SEC Player of the Year Aury Cruz, Florida is one dangerous No. 10 seed.

"You look at the coaches' poll and all four teams are in the top 10," Nebraska coach John Cook said of the teams playing in Lincoln. "I think on paper, this is as tough, if not the toughest region in the country."

Still, Cook's defending national champions are the heavy favorite to make it out of this region and into the final four. The Huskers are 32-1 lifetime at home in the NCAA Tournament. Florida, however, is not afraid of hitting the road.

"It's difficult for us because we don't have the large amount of fan support we have at home," McCray said. "But we enjoy that environment, going in against an awesome crowd. We play very good under pressure like that and I think that will help us."

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