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UT's roll hits a snag as SSC tourney approaches

With March Madness around the corner, teams around the country are hoping to hit a hot streak. That goes for Division II teams like Tampa as well.

With one week remaining before the Sunshine State Conference Tournament begins March 1, the Spartans were looking to peak just in time for the tip-off of college basketball's second season.

Tampa (18-8, 9-6) appeared headed toward the conference tournament on a roll, with wins last week against two of the SSC's best, Rollins and Nova Southeastern. But those victories were slightly overshadowed by Wednesday's loss to Florida Tech. The last-place Panthers beat UT 69-64, just their second conference win this season. It was the first time Tampa has lost to Florida Tech (6-20, 2-13) since the 1998-99 season, a span of 14 games.

But UT has received a boost on offense with the return of Shane Thorson. The forward missed four games with an abdominal strain but returned Feb. 15, coming off the bench to score a career-high 19 points to help the Spartans put an end to Rollins' nine-game win streak while knocking the Tars out of first place. Four players turned in double-digit performances, led by Christopher Evans' 20 points; he also had 14 rebounds. (On Tuesday the league crowned Evans Player of the Week.)

Thorson then went 4-of-6 from 3-point range, scoring 18 to upend Nova Southeastern, which moved into first after the Tars' loss on Wednesday.

"I just want to get minutes," Thorson said. "I feel I'm good against zone teams because of my ability to shoot but I think my best asset is passing. I just like to contribute and do what I can do on the court, which is add another dimension to the team."

Thorson's ability to score with his outside shooting and his scrappiness on defense should take some pressure off Evans and point guard Mark Borders, the team's leading scorers.

The Spartans wrap up the regular season at Barry (5-10, 13-13) on Saturday.

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: A critical loss at conference leader Rollins (25-0, 15-0) last week will keep the UT women from claiming the regular-season title, but they have won 10 of their past 11 games and will enter the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed.

Against Rollins, UT center Shaneisha Walton turned in a career-high 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting. She also corralled 13 rebounds and blocked three shots. Walton followed with nine points, 15 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks in a 58-46 win over Nova Southeastern on Saturday, helping her earn SSC Player of the Week honors.

Coach Tom Jessee said the team wants another crack at the Tars, but a rematch likely would come in the semifinals or finals of the SSC Tournament. The SSC winner earns an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"People used to say the magical number to get in (the NCAA tournament) was 20 wins, but that's not the case anymore," Jessee said. "In our minds we've been saying the only way to get in is to win our conference tournament."

Notching their 20th win with a victory over Florida Tech on Wednesday, the Spartans (20-6, 12-3) found themselves in the South Region poll for the first time all year, securing the 10th. That's good news for Jessee, who before Wednesday's game said he thought the team's chances of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament were remote if it was not in the South Region poll.

Tampa has made the NCAA Tournament three times: 1994 with a 21-6 regular-season mark, in 1999 going 20-9 and 2002 finishing 22-7. Only in 1999 did the Spartans win the SSC Tournament.

BASEBALL: Pitcher Sergio Perezjoined Evans and Walton as the third Tampa student-athlete to earn SSC Player of the Week on Tuesday. In the Feb. 17 nonconference game against Eckerd, Perez faced 25 batters, allowing just two hits while striking out eight in seven innings. He has pitched 12 consecutive scoreless innings and leads the team with 19 strikeouts.

- DAVID NORRIE, Times staff writer