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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA POSTSEASON TOURNAMENTS : Florida Reaches New Heights : East: Gators climb ladder to their first Final Four appearance with a 74-66 victory over Boston College.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Florida forward Dametri Hill . . . Your team just beat Boston College, 74-66, in the East Regional final Sunday at Miami Arena. What are you going to do now?

“Uh, I was going to come back in the locker room,” said Hill with a shrug.

Instead, somebody pointed him toward the wooden ladder situated underneath one of the baskets, handed him a pair of scissors and told him to snip away. Hill did as he was told, but the walk up the steps didn’t come naturally.

“Hey, it was new to me,” he said. “Like I said, I didn’t know what to do.”

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Somebody has to go the Final Four, which is why the third-seeded Gators and the 10th-seeded Eagles were playing for a road map to Charlotte and the right to face Duke in this Saturday’s semifinal game. One way or another, history was going to be made and as it turned out, Florida was the one to make it.

For the first time since a basketball was dribbled at Gainesville in 1915, the Gators (29-7) advanced to the Final Four. In fact, every time the Gators do something these days, it sets some sort of record. Most wins in a season . . . most fans at a regional final . . . most preseason predictions proven wrong.

“People really didn’t have confidence in us,” said point guard Dan Cross.

They do now. Or at least, they should.

Cross scored 14 points, but the smartest thing he did was find backcourt mate Craig Brown, who usually was positioned just behind the three-point line. Cross passed and Brown, as he has done during the Gators’ remarkable run, shot away.

Brown led everyone with 21 points, 15 of them the result of threes. During one critical stretch, the Gators down, 56-53, and only 5:11 left to play, Brown hit three consecutive three-pointers and also punched the ball from Bill Curley’s hands just as the Boston College center was ready to attempt a layup. Suddenly, the Eagles found themselves down by six with less than 3:30 remaining.

“I was just feeling the shot at the time and my teammates were aware of that,” said Brown, who wore the remains of the net around his neck. “After that, Dan just did a great job of continuing to look for me.”

The Eagles trimmed the lead to four points with 27 seconds left, but it didn’t matter. Boston College (23-11) was forced to foul and the Gators made enough of the free throws to keep the margin comfortable.

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It was Brown’s final three-pointer of the game, the one that gave Florida that six-point lead, that frustrated the Eagles the most.

“That was a big play they called,” said Gerrod Abram, who was assigned to guard Brown. “We knew what was coming, but it was hard to get over three consecutive screens. He just came off (the screen) and let them go. I played good defense, had my hands up, but it was just big shots by Craig Brown.”

And missed shots by Boston College. Point guard Malcolm Huckaby, who averages 10.5 points, didn’t score a single field goal. In all, the Eagles shot a dreadful 38.5% from the field and were four of 15 (one of 10 in the second half) from the three-point line. Against top-ranked North Carolina and later Indiana, the Eagles had hit 12 and 10 three-pointers, respectively.

Even as Abram kept clanging three-pointers off the rim in the second half, Eagle Coach Jim O’Brien didn’t seem overly concerned. During a timeout late in the game, O’Brien told Abram: “Gerrod, keep shooting them. Those are good shots.”

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Good shots, but nothing to show for it.

“It’s kind of hard to accept,” said Eagle guard Howard Eisley. “We had our chances to win the game.”

Meanwhile, Florida converted nearly 51% of its field-goal attempts, a number that caused O’Brien to do a double-take when he studied the postgame stat sheet.

“And I felt we guarded them pretty good,” said O’Brien.

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The Gators were helped by a career day by center Andrew DeClercq, who made eight of 11 shots for 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. He said it was his best first-half performance of the season. Florida Coach Lon Kruger went one further.

“His best game of the season,” he said.

And then there was the 6-7, 286-pound Hill, who battled Danya Abrams, a 6-7, 265-pound forward. The earth moved. So did Abrams and Curley, who often bounced off the beefy Hill.

“The same physique as me,” said Abrams. “Now I know how other people feel at the end of games. He wears people down.”

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The Gators weren’t tired. They took turns climbing that wooden ladder and peering into a crowd of 15,217, many of whom wore Florida orange and blue.

First to scale the steps was Cross, who looked over the scene and then planted a wet one on the glass backboard.

“I’ve been waiting to get to that ladder for 20 years now,” said Cross, who is 22. “It’s just a dream come true.”

Kruger, who coached Kansas State to within a victory of the Final Four in 1987, later made the same trip up the ladder. When he was done, he placed the net over Brown’s head.

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At celebration’s end, the Gators returned to the locker room, where Kruger noticed something amiss.

“You forgot to cut down the other net,” he said.

Said Brown to his coach: “We’re new to this.”


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