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It's final: Mich. State meets Fla.; Gators reach 1st final, wearing down Heels after losing lead, 71-59; 10-man Florida too deep; Haywood scores 20; UNC escapes 18-3 hole; FINAL FOUR


INDIANAPOLIS -- When North Carolina was forced to do what Florida likes to do last night, it was a sure sign that the lone remaining Atlantic Coast Conference team in the NCAA tournament was in trouble.

Down by eight with two minutes left, the Tar Heels went to a version of the press, shot three-pointers and tried desperately to muster enouging the threes -- which included air balls and bricks from senior guard Ed Cota and freshman forward Joseph Forte. As for the press, that caused nothing more than a host of fouls, prolonging the inevitable.

North Carolina center Brendan Haywood, who scored a game-high 20 points, admitted to his team being worn down.

"Fatigue was a factor," Haywood said. "We play six guys, sometimes seven. Some of their guys play 15 minutes a game, and we play 30 minutes a game. It's going to be a factor because they have more energy."

The Gators (29-7) will face Michigan State tomorrow night in their first-ever championship game.

"Florida does a great job in getting you to play the way they want you to play," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said. "Although we were breaking the press, we weren't really getting the type of shots we wanted.

"I think we were tired. We've played with six players most of the year and it hasn't affected us."

After trailing virtually the entire first half after Florida jumped to an 18-3 lead, North Carolina (22-14) came out strong at the beginning of the second half.

Forte, who was quiet in the first half, came out shooting. He tied the game at 40 two minutes in, then hit back-to-back three-pointers to give the Tar Heels their biggest lead at 48-42.

Both teams had to contend with foul trouble. Gators backup center Donnell Harvey picked up his fourth in the half's first five minutes, and starter Udonis Haslem got his fourth with 9: 35 left. Gators coach Billy Donovan stuck with the two, as did Guthridge when Cota picked up his fourth with 13: 18 left.

Cota's foul trouble did limit what he could do on defense, though, and backup guard Brett Nelson took advantage. Nelson, a freshman who led the Gators with 13 points, scored seven in a three-minute span to help the Gators build a 58-53 lead. Florida got the lead up to seven with four minutes left by going on a 13-2 run.

Fellow impact freshman Harvey was able to contain Haywood down low while capturing three straight defensive rebounds during the stretch.

"I thought our guys kept their composure," said Donovan, only the sixth man to play and coach in a Final Four. "Right around the 12-minute mark, we were not playing great basketball. They d count. Brett Nelson made some shots."

The Tar Heels shot only 35.1 percent for the game and 5-for-22 from three-point territory. In addition to Haywood, who added 12 rebounds, Forte added 15 points.

Florida shot 39.1 percent for the game, and put up 28 three-pointers, hitting seven. Ten Gators scored, and the bench outscored North Carolina's 37-2.

"We absorbed their blows and countered with our own blows," Florida guard Justin Hamilton said. "I think [our last run] finally allowed us to aking advantage of their size down low in Haywood and Kris Lang, who was limited by a sprained ankle.

That was until Cota hit a three with his team down 15 that changed the early momentum. Carolina then went on a 14-3 run, with Haywood scoring down low on four of them to cut the lead to 21-17 with eight minutes left.

With Haywood scoring or getting fouled down low, the Tar Heels became one-dimensional, and it hurt them when Guthridge decided to rest the 7-footer with five minutes left.

The Gators built the lead back up to 33-24 with 3: 31 left in the first half. That led to Haywood's being quickly reinserted, and another North Carolina comeback, closing within 37-34 at the half.

It had been quite a run to the Final Four for the Tar Heels, going from a preseason favorite to an afterthought by the time the tournament started.

Florida did not exactly enter the tournament looking like a Final Four team, either. The Gators had lost in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tourney to an Auburn team playing without its best player, Chris Porter.

But the Gators rebounded and have played well after almost getting eliminated by Butler in the first round of the tournament.

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