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April 1, 2008
NEW YORK ? Dante Milligan made a touching, triumphant return to the arena he practically grew up in, leading Massachusetts into the NIT championship game.
The undersized post player scored 17 points and made several blocks late against Florida, helping the Minutemen defeat the two-time defending NCAA champions 78-66 on Tuesday night.
Gary Forbes scored 19 points, Chris Lowe and Ricky Harris added 16 each, and the starters scored all but two points for the Minutemen, who will play either Ohio State or Mississippi on Thursday night.
UMass (25-10) took its first lead since early in the game when Etienne Brower hit a 3-pointer with 9:49 left. Milligan scored a couple minutes later, then stuffed Walter Hodge at the other end, leading to another 3 from Brower and a 59-51 lead with 7:25 to go.
The Gators (24-12) never could get closer than six the rest of the way, ending a disappointing season with a lackluster finish miles away and far removed from the consecutive titles they won on college basketball's biggest stage.
Marreese Speights had 12 points and a career-high 18 rebounds for Florida, the first defending champ to miss the NCAA tournament since 1989.
Milligan and his brother, Alonzo, were involved with Boys' Club of New York growing up, and their mentor worked in public relations at Madison Square Garden. Together they spent dozens of nights hanging out in the locker rooms and watching the New York Knicks.
Three years ago, Milligan's brother died in a random shooting in his old East Harlem neighborhood, and the Garden and Knicks established a scholarship fund in Alonzo's honor.
The older brother carries a tattoo on his arm that reads, "Enjoy life today. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may never come."
He's sure living up to it in the NIT.
He scored a career-high 24 points in the tournament opener against Stephen F. Austin and had 13 to help the Minutemen rally from 22 down with 14:37 left to beat Syracuse in the quarterfinals.
Like Donovan a year ago, when he flirted with a coaching vacancy in the NBA, Ford now has to face questions about his future. His name has already popped up for the opening at LSU, perhaps an avenue for returning to his roots in the Southeastern Conference.
His team was fortunate to be within 36-27 at the break, after a dreadful shooting performance uncharacteristic of the nation's eighth-highest scoring team. The Minutemen were just 1-of-13 from beyond the arc, and after Milligan's putback with 12:08 left, went more than 12 minutes without a field goal.
Florida wasn't much better, though, twice turning the ball over on inbound plays - gaffs more appropriate for November than the first day of April.
Forbes nearly brought the shooting slump to a merciful end with about 3 minutes to go, the ball rolling tantalizingly around the rim before popping out. A minute later he finally scored on a layup, and Massachusetts looked up to see it only trailed 30-25.