Florida hero's foundation was all brick COUNTDOWN TO CHARLOTTE -- FINAL 4 PREVIEW

March 31, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Funny how things have turned out for Craig Brown.

He is the player who missed two free throws in his first college game and cost the rebuilding Florida Gators a chance to upset nationally ranked Texas in 1990.

The end always takes Brown back to the beginning. It is as if he cannot stop paying penance for his original sin.

"That bothered me for some time," he said, "but my teammates kept telling me not to let it get me down. They had confidence in me. They said just wait until the opportunity arises again."

It has arisen again and again, each time reminding him of that first game. Those two free throws. Clank. Clank. It is the kind of thing that might make a guy replay that failure on the court instead of in his mind, but Brown has stepped up each time. He has made shots down the stretch, and he has made big free

throws at the end, though he couldn't have known that all that grace under pressure would get him to the Final Four in this, his senior year.

On Sunday against Boston College, Brown, who was one of the first players recruited after coach Lon Kruger came in to revive the program in 1990, simply took over the game at both ends of the court in a span of 82 seconds.

Beginning with 5:11 left in the East Regional final, Brown hit three straight three-point shots to bring the Gators from behind, grabbed an important rebound and stuffed Boston College center Bill Curley. The Eagles never really regained their composure, or the lead, losing, 74-66.

The 13th-ranked Gators moved into the Final Four for the first time in the history of the school, exceeding the expectations of even the most fervent Florida fans.

Brown and junior point guard Dan Cross made it happen. Though 286-pound center Dametri Hill draws a lot of attention for his bulky presence inside, it is the two guards and their outstanding perimeter shooting that have made a traditional football stronghold take notice of basketball again.

"These guys, with the leadership of Craig and Dan every day, have approached it with the idea of getting better, and those guys [Brown and Cross] have set a great tone," Kruger said. "I couldn't be any more pleased for them."

Cross is the more heralded of the two. Brown, 6 feet 3, was lightly recruited out of Steelton, Pa. Cross is the leading scorer on the team. Brown just happens to be the guy who likes the ball at crunch time.

Brown also made a huge three-point shot in the Gators' 69-60 regional semifinal upset of Connecticut and was named the outstanding player in the East Regional. He came up big when it counted, just as he has so many times before in his four seasons at Florida.

Going into the season, he would have been happy just to show up in the NCAA's 64-team draw. He told The Gainesville Sun in November that his ultimate goal was just to make it into the tournament.

The Gators had come close the past two years, but they still were considered the surprise team of the Southeastern Conference this season. No one is surprised anymore -- not after 25 regular-season victories and four tournament wins heading into Saturday's semifinal with Duke.

"I'm very happy for our guys," Kruger said. "It's a group that has genuinely enjoyed the opportunity each day to get better, and I think if there is something to come out of this for them, it's the understanding of how hard work on the front end correlates to results on the back end."

This is a young Gators team that can only get better. Brown and 6-11 forward Martti Kuisma are the only seniors. Hill, whose trademark shot is called "DaMeat Hook," is a sophomore. So is swing man Jason Anderson. Cross and forward Andrew DeClercq are juniors. If the Gators can replace Brown's outside shooting, they should be one of the dominant teams in the SEC again next year.

For the moment, however, the focus is on finding a way to keep the perennial Final Four entrant Duke out of the championship game.

"We're just excited about the opportunity," Kruger said. "Duke has set the standard for college basketball for the last seven, eight, 10 years. Mike Krzyzewski is outstanding and the players are outstanding and we're looking forward to it.

"I don't think we'll be favored, but we're looking forward to it and, again, our guys will line up, just as they have for the previous 35 or 36 games. That's a credit to them."

COUNTDOWN TO CHARLOTTE

All games on Channels 11, 9

Saturday

* Arizona (29-5) vs. Arkansas (29-3), 5:42 p.m.

* Florida (29-7) vs. Duke (27-5), 8:30 p.m.

Monday

* Championship, 9:22 p.m.

Previews

Today: Florida

` Tomorrow: Arkansas

FLORIDA AT A GLANCE

Record: 29-7

Conference: Southeastern

Location: Gainesville, Fla.

Enrollment: 35,000

Coach: Lon Kruger (4 years, 73-50)

Scoring leader: 6-3 G Dan Cross (15.9)

Rebounding leader: 6-10 C Andrew DeClercq (7.9)

Assist leader: Cross (3.8)

Last Final Four appearance: None

National titles: None

1993-94 results

86 .. .. ..Florida International .. .. .. ..66

76 .. .. .. .. .at Texas .. .. .. .. .. ....68

66 .. .. .. .South Florida .. .. .. .. .. ..55

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