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Gators can quiet critics with road victory tonight

It is on a 13-game winning streak, unbeaten in district play and ranked No. 4 in the latest Class 5A state poll. And yet, when the district tournament rolls around in two weeks, one can't help but wonder: Will the Land O'Lakes Gators even be the favorite.

There are still doubts despite a 22-2 record (they played River Ridge on Thursday) for the simple fact that the Gators don't have a superstar player, no highflying dunk artist or three-point bomber that makes your mouth hang open. It has no Cory or Corey (Seels or Bailey), no Joe (Hoolihan or Handelong), and no John (Howell).

But there is no denying what it does have so far this season: the area's best basketball record and, just maybe, team.

"Sure, there's still going to be doubt (from other coaches and players)," Gators coach Dave Puhalski said. "We don't have any all-state players. I don't even know if we'll have any more than one or two players on the all-conference team. On any given night, anyone can beat us. But if we're playing well, we'll be tough to beat."

At 7:30 tonight, the Gators will go on the road and try to beat the one team that some think is better _ East Lake. At stake is the No. 1 seed in the district tournament.

In years past, that No. 1 seed would be coveted for the bye it comes with and a second-round matchup that would likely be advantageous. Puhalski, though, shrugs off the significance. Because, as he says, East Lake, Ridgewood or River Ridge is capable of pulling off the upset, and because the tournament will be at preseason favorite Ridgewood, seeding will mean little.

"I don't think it's very important this year," Puhalski said.

What is is momentum, and the Gators have it. Then again, so do the Eagles, who have beaten River Ridge (twice) and Ridgewood in the past two weeks, with no game being particularly close.

The Eagles have just one district loss, and the Gators delivered it back on Jan. 11 in a 57-46 contest. East Lake has won seven in a row since.

In the loss, Eagle star Corey Bailey was held to 12 points and fouled out with six minutes left, fueling a late Gator rally. Tonight, Puhalski is hoping for more of the team defense _ spearheaded by leading scorers Jeff and Brian Baisley _ that has shut down virtually every "star" player the Gators have faced.

"Corey Bailey is very, very good," Puhalski said. "If he has a good night, we're going to have some problems. He fouled out last time, and that really sparked us. At the time, it was a one- or two-point game. Just their athleticism will give us problems. But Corey is the key if he's playing well."

If the Gators lose, both teams will have 9-1 district records and a coin flip could determine the No. 1 seed. But Puhalski is more worried about his team being bumped off its stride.

"We just have to keep playing steady," he said. "The key is to try to play good basketball at the important time of year, and this is it."