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Gators top Vols, pass Kentucky

Every once in a while, a coach lucks into a great pep talk. A no-brainer pep talk. The kind that even a novice could handle.

And so it was Saturday for Lon Kruger. The Florida coach gathered his players in a pregame huddle and did the inspiration bit.

"Fellas, South Carolina just beat Kentucky."


Stuff the Gipper. For the Gators, no news could have been more motivating. South Carolina's 75-74 upset of the seventh-ranked Wildcats opened the door for No. 19 Florida to claim a portion of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title and, more important, the No. 1 seeding in their bracket of the SEC men's basketball tournament.

All UF needed was a victory over Tennessee. The Gators got it, 82-71.

Kruger's biggest problem was getting his troops out of the clouds long enough to finish off the Vols.

"Maybe we opened the ballgame a little giddy, wanting to score 10-point baskets and make it happen quick," Kruger said. "It just doesn't happen that way. Not until there was 12, 13 minutes in the game did we play the way we have consistently on the year."

Not that the coach could have blamed his players. Less than 72 hours earlier, the Gators lost a 19-point lead at Lexington, Ky., and seemingly lost a season-long hold on first place in the division. The Wildcats were on a five-game winning streak and were 10-point favorites against the Gamecocks.

South Carolina, moreover, had gone 45 days since its last win in Columbia.

"Basically, yeah, I didn't think South Carolina had a chance," Florida senior guard Craig Brown said. "When I woke up this morning, I thought we'd be playing late Friday evening (in the SEC tournament)."

Now Florida has a whole new perspective on the tournament in Memphis, which begins Thursday.

Had Kentucky beaten South Carolina, Florida would have been stuck with this schedule:

A quarterfinal game at 9:30 p.m. Friday and, if UF won, the reward of playing top-ranked Arkansas about 14 hours later.

Instead, the Gators are out of the Arkansas side of the bracket and play at 1 p.m. Friday and, if they win, again at 1 p.m. Saturday. UF cannot play Arkansas until the championship game.

Kruger did not pretend that a share of the division title was as beneficial as the new seeding.

"It changes when we play on Friday," Kruger said. "That's the first thing that comes to my mind."

Florida and Kentucky have identical records of 23-6 overall and 12-4 in the SEC and are co-champions of the Eastern Division. The teams split their two meetings, but the Gators are the higher seed because they have a better record (8-2 to 7-3) against Eastern Division teams.

"Coach told us about Kentucky losing in the huddle before it was announced," UF forward Andrew DeClercq said. "It shocked us, because we had watched a lot of the game and Kentucky was winning pretty easily.

"So it really pumped us up. It put this opportunity in our hands."

When the score was announced, it elicited a roar from the O'Connell Center crowd of 11,212. It was the last good cheer the fans would have for a while.

Tennessee (5-21, 2-14) is finishing up a horrid season, but the Vols hung tough in coach Wade Houston's final regular-season game. Houston announced his resignation earlier in the week.

The Vols were leading 52-49 in the second half before Florida guard Dan Cross took the matter upon himself. Cross scored 14 points in a little more than five minutes as the Gators turned the three-point deficit into a 10-point lead. UF led the rest of the way on the way to a team-record-tying 23rd victory.

"Dan Cross just will not let that team lose," Houston said. "He is so mentally tough, the rest of the team just feeds off his attitude."

Cross finished with a team-high 26 points as the Gators put five scorers in double figures.

The SEC's top three-point shooter _ he was averaging 50 percent _ Cross started 0-for-5 from three-point range.

"Nothing was falling for me," Cross said. "I stayed after practice to shoot (Saturday) morning, and I thought I was going to be on. I guess I was just a little hyper. I had to try to calm down, and the coaches tried to calm me down to get back into my game."