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Florida throws on its underdog cape

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Florida's DeLisha Milton and her teammates anticipated being underdogs against Old Dominion in the championship game of the Mideast Regional. It's a role they've grown accustomed to.

"They're a good team. They're ranked second in the nation. They're strong defensively and in rebounding," Milton said. "They're seeded first in the region, and no one expected us to reach the championship game."

Old Dominion (32-1) heads into tonight's title game at Purdue's Mackey Arena with 31 consecutive victories, a nation-leading 86.1 scoring average and a long history of success.

The Monarchs are in the tournament for the 14th time since 1982, and they have won two AIAW championships plus one NCAA title.

This year Florida (24-8) reached the final 16 for the first time. It upset No. 2 seed Louisiana Tech, a two-time NCAA champion, in the regional semifinals Saturday.

"It gives us the opportunity to come out with nothing to lose because nobody expects us to win," Florida guard Dana Smith said.

"We need to come out and give 110 percent because if we don't win, we want them to at least know that they had to beat us at our best."

Old Dominion beat Louisiana State in the other semifinal, advancing to the regional final for the first time since winning the 1985 NCAA championship.

"We've made tremendous strides with our program," said Milton, the first Florida basketball player _ male or female _ to earn first-team All-America honors.

"We've had to push and fight for what we have today. We're underdogs, and we don't mind. We feed off that. Hopefully, we can do that again."

Florida is one of seven SEC teams awarded berths in the 64-team field and one of three still in contention for a trip to the Final Four at Cincinnati.

The Gators have averaged 85 points in the tournament, with Milton contributing 32 points and 19 rebounds.

Milton leads the team in scoring with an 18.6 average. Murriel Page is second in scoring at 16.0 and leads in rebounding at 10.2. Page had led the team in the tournament with 68 points and 33 rebounds.

Milton and Page give away several inches and pounds to 6-foot-5 Clarisse Machanguana and 6-3 Nyree Roberts, who top the Monarchs in scoring and rebounding. Machanguana averages 20.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, and Roberts averages 17.3 points and 8.1 rebounds.

Along with neutralizing that duo, plus inside player Mery Andrade, Florida will have to slow All-America point guard Ticha Penicheiro, who excels in the open court.

The Monarchs are shooting 50 percent and have used their jumping and physical strength to outrebound opponents by an average of more than 10 per game.

"Our defense usually makes us go offensively," Roberts said.

"One of the things that brought us here was rebounding," Andrade said. "Everyone knows we're strong off the boards and tries to fight us for the ball."

Old Dominion, however, hasn't been overpowering in the tournament. It needed to overcome an eight-point deficit before defeating Purdue 69-65 in overtime in the second round and struggled before ending the first half with a 14-4 run in the closing minutes against LSU on Saturday.

"We need to start coming out more relaxed," guard Stacy Himes said. "I think we've come out tight and haven't played our game. We haven't played our best game yet.

"We have to come out and play Old Dominion basketball, and I think we're ready to do that."