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ODU drops Gators

The shot left Florida guard Dana Smith's hands and overtime seemed imminent.

Nearly everything else Smith had done during the NCAA Tournament had been golden, so why shouldn't she score the points that would seal an improbable comeback against favored Old Dominion?

The 8-footer felt good, a red-eyed Smith said afterward, "but it didn't look good." It bounced off the rim with 2.7 seconds left and the Gators were bounced from the tournament.

Old Dominion's Natalie Diaz grabbed the rebound as time expired, and the top-seeded and second-ranked Monarchs held on to a 53-51 victory Monday night in the final of the Mideast Regional at Purdue University.

ODU (33-1), a power in the 1970s and '80s that returned to prominence this season, advances to the women's Final Four on Friday in Cincinnati.

It was a sour ending to a sweet season for the Gators (24-9), who went farther in the tournament than any team in school history. And considering third-seeded and seventh-ranked UF ended the game with a 12-0 run to muscle its way back into contention, it will take time to digest.

But Gators coach Carol Ross was far from devastated. UF trailed by 14 with more than 6 minutes left and nearly came away with an upset.

"For our kids to step in and make one more run when they were exhausted and frustrated, it showed a lot of determination," Ross said. "I'd rather lose by one or two than not have a chance."

All-American DeLisha Milton led UF with 18 points and 19 rebounds and was named the regional's most outstanding player, while point guard Mahogany Hudson scored 15 and had seven assists.

"I'm very proud of our team," Milton said. "We did a tremendous job and we fought very hard to get this far. A lot of people didn't expect us to get this far, but we really believed in ourselves."

"As ugly as it might have been, we're fortunate to win," Old Dominion coach Wendy Larry said. "The difference in tonight's game was our bench stepped up."

Florida, which breezed through the first three tournament games, fought for everything it got against Old Dominion. The Monarchs had some of the quickest guards the Gators had seen all season.

All-American point guard Ticha Penicheiro was almost unstoppable. She showed her versatility by making her way behind Florida's defense for easy baskets, taking advantage of any hesitation with a steal, driving the lane for layups and even blocking shots. She finished with 9 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks.

And Florida found itself stifled by the Monarchs' punishing defense.

"Everything we ran at them, they seemed to have a defensive answer for," Ross said. "I don't know if anyone has played us as tough and aggressively as Old Dominion did."

Guard Mery Andrade put Old Dominion up 1-0 in the first minute, the first time in the tournament that Florida trailed. But neither team was playing well. Despite six turnovers in the first six minutes, the Gators led 11-5.

The Monarchs rallied with an 8-0 run, and the teams traded baskets for the next several minutes. Hudson carried Florida with seven of her team's next eight points.

Florida trailed 32-27 at halftime, but could consider itself lucky. The Gators had 12 turnovers and both teams were missing so many shots that UF outrebounded ODU 25-18 in the first 20 minutes.

After the Gators pulled within three early in the second half, Old Dominion started rolling. Andrade and Aubrey Eblin made two three-pointers to make it 44-35.

It got worse for Florida. Milton left the game in foul trouble and center Nyree Roberts sparked the Monarchs on an 8-0 run. ODU led 53-39 with 6:31 left.

"There were times when we stopped attacking the basket," Larry said. "We have to get over that. We became hesitant toward the end and it nearly cost us."

The Gators shut out the Monarchs the rest of the game and chipped away at their lead. Milton, Hudson and Murriel Page each scored baskets. Then Smith, averaging 15.7 points during the tournament, made her first points of the game _ a three-pointer _ to make 53-51.

Both teams missed shots on their next trips downcourt, then Penicheiro missed the front end of a one-and-one. Smith wanted to try another three-point attempt on the last shot, but was forced inside for the final shot.

Neither team shot well from the floor: ODU 35.1 percent, UF 30.8.

"We never thought about losing the game," Andrade said. "When they came on, we just felt we could make the stop."

_ The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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