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    By Darek Sharp, Times Correspondent

    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    TAMPA — So, what's the magic recipe that has allowed this particular Robinson High School football team to look like it may be the one?

    Longtime coach Mike DePue, in his last year and hoping for the grandest send-off one could imagine, is too busy to bother with such a question. Or really, too busy to be jinxed with it. That's okay because there are plenty of other knowledgeable coaches on the Knights' staff who have a handle on what has been so different this year.

    "Nothing. We're not doing anything differently," swears Shawn Taylor, one of a handful of Knights' assistants who are also Robinson graduates. "We had the same format this offseason, same goals. First is to win district, then a region title."

    It's just that the formula has never translated to a state title for Robinson. And yet, this year, there seems to be an overwhelming sense that the Knights could be destined for the school's first.

    The Knights' next test is a Class 5A semifinal contest tonight against visiting Tallahassee Godby. If the Knights advance, they'll play the winner of tonight's other semifinal contest pitting Immokalee at Miami Jackson for the state title. Kickoff for both games is 7:30 p.m.

    None of Robinson's longtime coaches says DePue has stressed anything special, or been any more emotional through the year despite knowing it's his last chance.

    Until maybe just recently.

    "The week of the Plant game, we passed each other in the hall and we joked about something. We laughed, but then, we started to cry," said defensive line coach Tomas Montero, a 1988 Robinson grad. "You can tell what's going on. So all of us want to win it for him."

    Montero and Taylor are joined by other former Knights players on staff — longtime assistants Vaughn Volpi, Rob Burns, David Kiranen, Josh Saunders and Gene Blalock.

    Having that consistent group of leaders, familiar with and loyal to the program and to each other, has been something DePue constantly points to as a reason for the Knights' recent success.

    But as for this year's unprecedented triumphs, Taylor, the captain of the 1999 Knights squad, admits a couple of factors have been very helpful.

    "Really I think it's that we have a strong group of seniors, at least one at every position. And with the bracket having us at home for every playoff game, it's played out just how you'd plan it," he said.

    "Well, except for losing to Plant, things have played out just how we planned it."

    For Taylor and his Knights, a state title would do a pretty nice job of erasing the sting of that defeat.

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    By Eve Edelheit, Times Photojournalist
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    As football season begins to wind down, fans of the Hillsborough County prep sport are reminded that all good things must come to an end. ¶ As the season concludes, so too does the coaching career of Robinson High's head football coach. After 30 seasons as a football coach, 10 as a head coach and a total of 35 years teaching in the Hillsborough County School District, Mike DePue is retiring. ¶ "I'm going to miss the camaraderie of the coaching staff at Robinson and the coaches in the county," said DePue. "I'll miss developing relationships with the kids most of all." ¶ And what a final season to go out with. After last week, Robinson is the last county team still on the journey to a state championship. ¶ For DePue, the goal is clear: to win a state title. ¶ "It's been a magic carpet ride," said DePue of his final season. ¶ For someone who says, "I'm as passionate in the classroom as I am on the football field," it will be tough to walk away from a long successful football career. So, what does DePue look forward to be doing as his former team works out in the hot Florida summer sun? ¶ "I'm going to be a snowbird," said DePue. "I want to travel, I want to enjoy life. There is so much to do."

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    By Brandon Wright, Times Correspondent
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012


    Considering that boys soccer coaches and brothers Scott and Allen Ware would be squaring off for the first time in the 2012 season less than two weeks out from Thanksgiving, some trash talking at the dinner table seemed inevitable.

    But no knives were brandished, no threats were made and no slide tackles were dished out in the back yard.

    "Nah," said Scott, who coaches Wharton. "We get along really well. Always have been. And we're both pretty laid back."

    Scott, 39, and Allen, 42, who is in his first season at Newsome, are no strangers to the local soccer scene. After a few years at Plant City, Allen spent the next 15 years at Brandon (1996-2010). He led the Eagles to a state title in 2003, with Scott on the sideline helping out.

    "I played for two years at (the University of Central Florida), then took some time away from the game," Scott said. "By helping Allen out, I realized that coaching was definitely what I wanted to do."

    Scott coached the Brandon girls team in 2004 and the Wharton girls team in 2005 before taking over the Wildcats boys team in 2006.

    "But all that started with helping (Brandon) out in 2003," Scott said. "I enjoyed it so much. I realized this was something I wanted to do full-time."

    Scott equaled Allen's feat in 2008, winning a state title with a 2-1 win against St. Thomas Aquinas.

    "I was happy for him," Allen said.

    So how well do these guys get along? Well, as the story according to Scott goes, Allen let his brother get a 3-2 regular season win that year. It was the Eagles' lone win on the season.

    "I saved his banquet," Scott joked.

    Allen said the match provided much-needed material.

    "I'm not sure what I would have talked about (at the banquet) otherwise," he said.

    Overall, the brothers have faced each other a handful of other times before this season, but recalling that match in 2008 is the closest thing to a running scoreboard between the two.

    "I think he's up a couple wins on me," Allen said. "But honestly, I'm not sure. You'd have to ask him."

    This season, it looks like the table will tilt toward Allen. Newsome has one of the stronger teams in the area while Scott is rebuilding a Wharton team that lost 12 seniors off last season's club.

    "We're competitive and we want to win each time we go out," Allen said. "But it's a competitive fun. Because we know what it's like to be on the other side of it."

    Scott was "on the other side of it" Tuesday when the Ware brothers faced off. Newsome breezed to a 3-0 win, scoring its goals in the first half. Newsome and Wharton may meet again in the district playoffs but listening to the Wares, there was far more smack talk surrounding the Florida-Florida State football game at Thanksgiving dinner than between these two coaches on the field.

    "Me and Allen are both Florida State fans and our parents aren't, so it was us against them," Scott said. "I'm sure it will ramp up if we play in the postseason but he's got a good team this year. (Newsome) was a great job for him to come back to and I'm glad he got it."

    Brandon Wright can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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    By Darek Sharp, Times Correspondent
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    PLANT CITY — Every two years, the local high school football scene gets a shakeup.

    This go-round could provide a seismic shift.

    The Florida High School Athletics Association's fall population report gives the first indication on how the districts will be shaped for the next two seasons. It can serve as a Christmas present or a big lump of coal.

    In 2010, Strawberry Crest found coal in its stocking. After an inaugural year of independent play, the FHSAA placed the Chargers in their first football district, a Class 6A group that included a state champion in Jefferson and perennial powers Armwood and Hillsborough.

    Strawberry Crest knew it wouldn't be going to the playoffs for at least a couple of more years.

    The FHSAA issued its latest figures last week, and this year it looks like the Chargers have hit the jackpot.

    Strawberry Crest will move up to Class 7A — while Armwood will not. Better yet, for the first time Strawberry Crest, Plant City and Durant seemed destined for the same district.

    "Even though our season just ended, I'm already trying to get a jump start, so yeah I looked at it," said Chargers head coach John Kelly.

    In fact, he pored over the population data enough to be convinced we'll see the all-Plant City grouping in 7A.

    Never have all three Plant City schools been in the same district for a team sport. District placement means everything in football because only games against district opponents count toward playoff qualification. A team stuck behind two powers can easily run into frustration. Consider Sunlake, the Land O'Lakes school that went 8-2 this year but failed to reach the postseason.

    Strawberry Crest beat the Raiders this season but ended up below .500 because of the challenges it found in Class 6A, District 8. The Chargers gave Hillsborough and Jefferson tough tests but lost, 32-24 and 35-31 respectively.

    "We still have a long way to go before we talk too much about playoffs," Kelly said. "But I'd be lying if I said your playoff chances don't improve with Armwood out of the way. And you always want to play your (Plant City) rivals."

    There are eight classifications, and using the past population report as a guide, it seems impossible that the three Plant City schools don't all end up in Class 7A.

    The only way they won't sit in the same district is if the FHSAA decides to, for example, group Strawberry Crest with Tampa-area teams or maybe slide Plant City into a Polk County grouping. But there are six well-established Polk County schools already in the 7A range, making the latter move unlikely.

    The other Hillsborough County projected 7A teams — Steinbrenner, Sickles, Freedom and Gaither — are all in the same north Tampa area and would make a natural grouping with Pasco County's only 7A team, Wiregrass Ranch, thrown into the mix.

    If that geographical logic holds true, the three Plant City schools will likely be joined by East Bay, Brandon and Riverview, unless the Sharks get nudged up to 8A. Tampa Bay Tech also could land in the 7A district if it doesn't get grouped with the aforementioned north Tampa bunch.

    Perhaps the biggest question will be what happens to Plant. The powerful Panthers are right on the line between being an 8A or 7A school. Eagerly awaiting that decision are Class 8A-bound Alonso and Wharton.

    Bloomingdale and Newsome also are on the large-school population border, but appear to be destined for a Class 8A district. Plant City and Durant won't bemoan losing Newsome from its list of district foes, especially when you consider the Wolves recently ended Durant's perfect season with a 21-14 defeat in the regional semifinal.

    The 6A district will remain competitive with Armwood, Hillsborough and Jefferson. Robinson, which plays in a 5A state semifinal tonight, also may move up. King, Chamberlain, Lennard, Blake and Leto also may play in 6A, but the FHSAA could divide up the high number of 6A schools into two districts.

    Jesuit, Spoto, Middleton and Robinson spent the last two seasons in a nine-team behemoth Class 5A district. There are no more than those four Hillsborough County teams that could be 5A bound, so the FHSAA will have to decide how to group that quarter with the high number of Class 5A teams in Pasco and Pinellas counties.

    The population report is viewable at fhsaa.org and again, the final decisions won't come until January. However, who can blame the coaches for looking ahead. Doesn't everyone take an early peek at their Christmas gifts?

    Darek Sharp can be reached at hillsnews@tampbay.com.

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    By Derek J. LaRiviere, Times Correspondent
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    Top Contenders Gymnastics, south of Brooksville, took part in several competitions over the past couple of months, with the results that many have come to expect from the elite academy.

    A combination of athletes led Top Contenders to team championships at the Fall Gasparilla Gymnastics Competition at the Lakeland Center in October, the Gene Stone Invitational at the Tampa Convention Center in November and at the Suncoast Gymnastics Academy in New Port Richey in November.

    The individual results of the Top Contenders gymnasts at the Gasparilla event were also impressive.

    Alex McCann, 5, led the way for the team in the Level 2 division, taking first place in vault, bars, beam and all-around. Breanna Boice, 7, captured a gold medal in floor in the same division. Hannah Summers, 6, also earned first in floor.

    Danika Abbadessa, 7, won first place in the all-around in Level 3, thanks to gold medals in bars and floor. Shelby Goode, 7, took first in beam, while Abigail Sallings, 7, earned first in vault. Katie Johnson, 10, captured a Level 3 gold in the floor.

    The Level 4 competition was split into AAU and USA criteria. In AAU, Courtney Wenrich, 9, won the beam, while Abigail Barron, 9, took the vault. Madison Morgan, 10, earned the all-around title with first place medals in both the vault and bars.

    The local USA gymnasts were led by Natalie Torraco, 7. She won the overall with gold medals in the vault, bars and floor. Gabrielle Healis, 7, also won an all-around crown with victories in the beam and floor. Kayden Clift, 7, earned a win in the beam event, and Savannah Kline, 11, won the vault, while both took home all-around titles.

    HIGH POINT WOMEN'S GOLF: The High Point Women's Golf League competed in nine-hole and 18-hole events last week.

    In the nine-hole division, the women played "Odd Holes In" with players scoring only the odd holes.

    Barbara Ryan won Flight A with a score of 24. Helen Reynolds (25) came in second, only one stroke behind. Freddie Worley (25) took the crown in Flight B, with Sandra Cairns and Pat Goman tying for second with at 27. The Flight C winner was Cecile Abbott (28), over Jean Trant (29).

    Cairns was the lone golfer in the division to card a birdie, scoring one under par on the first hole.

    The 18-hole women competed in an "Even Holes Only Minus Handicap" contest.

    Cindy Williams (16) won Flight A by one stroke over Elizabeth Bates (17). Dottie Mussato (19) and Donna O'Keefe (20) rounded out the top four. In Flight B, Bernice Skinner not only won the title, but also carded the best round of the day with a 14. Anna McGovern (16) placed second, ahead of Liz Maharg (17) and Jean Erber (19).

    McGovern and Reeves both birdied the third hole, while Williams scored a birdie on the 12th hole. Maharg, Skinner, Joy Brady and Williams all had chip-ins during their rounds.

    FIREARMS SAFETY CLASSES: The Hernando Sportsman's Club will offer a female firearms safety course Dec. 15.

    The class will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the club, 16121 Commercial Way, north of Weeki Wachee.

    The course will cover the basics of firearms safety around the home, as well as an introduction to pistol safety, parts and operation; an introduction to ammunition and the fundamentals of pistol shooting; an introduction to pistol shooting from the seated and standing position, and an introduction to pistol cleaning and storage.

    Classes include instruction, live-fire training on the range and a lunch break.

    The cost is $60. Successful completion of the class provides required documentation to apply for a Florida concealed carry permit. Preregistration is required.

    Call (352) 597-9931 to preregister. For information, visit hernandosportsmansclub.com.

    TENNIS CLINICS: Ace Performance Tennis is offering QuickStart drills every Monday at Delta Woods Park in Spring Hill.

    From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., players will take part in drills and games designed for beginners, using the U.S. Tennis Association-approved strategies for 60-foot court players. The fee is $10 per player.

    Ace Performance Tennis also offers Ladies Night Out from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. every Monday at Delta Woods Park.

    For $10 per class, women of beginning and intermediate skill levels can learn to play in a fun social setting.

    For information, call John or Louise Downey at (352) 666-0658 or visit louisedowney.usptapro.com.

    TOURETTE SYNDROME GOLF TOURNAMENT: The Plantation Golf Resort in Crystal River will host the inaugural Tee Off for Tourette Celebrity Golf Tournament on Feb. 1 and 2.

    Proceeds will benefit the Tourette Syndrome Association of Florida, a volunteer organization dedicated to helping individuals and families living with Tourette's syndrome. The money will help send children to an annual camp, where they can be with other children with Tourette syndrome and can make new friends.

    The basic entry fee is $500 per four-player team, which includes a hole sign and recognition in the tournament program, as well as greens fees and a cart. Other sponsorship levels include gold, platinum and event.

    For $1,000, a sponsor receives the same features as with the basic fee, plus a plaque commemorating the event. For a platinum fee of $2,500, a corporate sponsor gets two four-player teams. The event sponsor fee of $5,000 includes three four-player teams and the privilege of playing the round with one of the celebrities signed up to be on hand.

    Individual hole sponsorships are $250. Individual players can play for a cost of $100 per golfer.

    Among the celebrities expected to appear are former Buffalo Bills linebacker Darryl Talley, American Idol Season 9 contestant Dave Pittman, Kansas City Royals minor leaguer Nick DelGuidice and sports artist John Prince.

    For more information, contact event chairman Gary D'Amico at (352) 527-2938 or gary78@tampabay.rr.com.

    Contact Derek J. LaRiviere at derekjlariviere@gmail.com or (352) 584-6337.

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    By Dave Walker, Times Correspondent
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    What's hot: Results of recent outings reflect the warm fall. Redfish on the flats are still meandering in search of an easy offering. Use a live shrimp or cut bait. At this time of year, there are not many "bait stealers" in the shallows. Therefore, the natural baits typically don't produce many unwanted species. On the super low tides, reds are on the outer edge of almost any tidal grass flat.

    Tactics: While the weather is nearly perfect, the fishing is not necessarily easy. Extreme patience is needed to diagnose and target fickle fish. Fishing can be really hit or miss.

    Prepare: Enjoy the temperate weather expected for the next two weeks and pack extra jackets to be ready for the usual cold front that hits Tampa Bay right before the holidays.

    Dave Walker charters out of Tampa. Call (813) 310-6531, email captdavewalker@verizon.net or visit snookfish.com.

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    By Antonya English, Times Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Will Muschamp was named the SEC co-coach of the year by the league's coaches, sharing the honor with Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin on Wednesday.

    In his second season, Muschamp went 11-1 after going 7-6 in 2011. The Aggies went 10-2 (6-2 SEC) in their first season in the league, including winning at then-No. 1 Alabama.

    Gators senior Caleb Sturgis was named co-special teams player of the year with South Carolina's Ace Sanders. Sturgis leads the SEC with 23 field goals and made 23 of 27 overall. Sanders averaged a league-high 14.5 yards on punt returns with one touchdown.

    A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was named offensive player of the year. The first freshman to earn the award since Georgia's Herschel Walker in 1980, he passed for 3,419 yards and rushed for 1,181 for an SEC-record 4,600 total yards.

    South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded a school-record 13 sacks, was named defensive player of the year.

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    By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    NASHVILLE — As grateful as Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics is to receive minor-league baseball's lifetime achievement award, it won't mean quite as much because the love of his life won't be there to see.

    Karen Lukevics died in Tampa on Nov. 18 after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer. The wake was Nov. 27, the funeral Nov. 28. The banquet is tonight.

    "It's been a very difficult week, a lot of emotions," Lukevics said Wednesday in the Opryland lobby, fighting back tears. "The last time I was in this hotel my wife was with me — we received in 2007 the Topps minor-league organization of the year award.

    "Fast forward to 2012 and I'm honored, I'm humbled to receive the Chief Bender Award. And the most important person in my life can't be here to share this with me. So there's a lot of emotions."

    The day after Karen, 56, died, Mitch made the drive from the north Tampa home they'd shared since 1988 and went to work at the Trop. "I didn't really know what to do," he said.

    One of the team's longest-serving employees since signing on in 1995, Lukevics took care of a few things that had to be done, met with his staff then left around noon, and spent the next two weeks dealing with all the difficult issues that have come up.

    But he knew he had to come to Nashville. Thirty-two years of marriage — and the "love and commitment" — made that clear.

    "Somehow, being with my teammates, my really good teammates, makes things easier. It really does," Lukevics said. "This is what she would want. And this is by her wishes — I have to move on. That's hard to do right now. Every day gets a little better. There's always reminders, and there will be reminders. And she'll tell me at 59 to grow up."

    Courtesy of Lukevics familyCourtesy of Lukevics family

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    By Joe Smith, Times Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    TAMPA — It's silly season in collegiate coaching circles right now, with plenty of speculation surrounding who might land in the various positions currently open.

    Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan found himself in that rumor mill over the weekend, when ESPN reported he expressed interest in the now-filled Boston College head coaching position. The Eagles have since hired Temple coach Steve Addazio, a former Gators offensive coordinator.

    But Sullivan indicated Wednesday that he never pursued the Boston College job.

    "All of my attention, all of my focus, all of my energy has been and will continue to be on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense, getting us to be our best on Sunday," Sullivan said. "This is the time of year when there's going to be rumor or innuendo.

    "To set the record straight, before I would ever initiate contact or pursue or inquire about a job, the first thing I would do would be to talk to coach (Greg) Schiano. The second thing would be to talk to (general manager) Mark Dominik, and then ownership. None of those conversations occurred. I'm totally focused on the task at hand."

    ON THE MEND: The Bucs got encouraging news on CB LeQuan Lewis' knee injury. Lewis, who suffered the injury Sunday, was riding a stationary bike Wednesday, and Schiano said the prognosis is "not as bad as maybe it appeared initially."

    While Lewis may not return this week, Schiano doesn't believe it'll be a long-term problem.

    Lewis has also been the team's primary kick returner, and Schiano said there are several options to fill that role Sunday against the Eagles, including WR Tiquan Underwood, punt returner Roscoe Parrish or RB Michael Smith.

    DEBUT TIME: The Bucs young and banged-up secondary is expected to get a boost Sunday when CB Anthony Gaitor makes his season debut.

    Gaitor, who has been on injured reserve with a hamstring injury suffered in the preseason, feels ready to step in after practicing for two weeks with the team. The second-year pro is hoping to build off the momentum he gained in finishing last year strong.

    "Just happy to be back, it's been a long time," Gaitor said. "I've been preparing like I was playing each and every game. Now I got an opportunity to play."

    Gaitor, who played in nickel situations last season, could play there again Sunday, or more.

    "He's going to have a role; everybody is going to have a role," Schiano said. "Right now, we're at a spot where it's all hands on deck in the secondary and we're going to play it together."

    HOLTZ SIGHTING: Recently fired USF coach Skip Holtz was a guest observer at Wednesday's practice, seen chatting with Schiano. Holtz was unavailable for comment.

    MEDICAL MATTERS: DT Roy Miller (head) did not participate in Wednesday's practice, and neither did RB D.J. Ware (illness). WR Vincent Jackson was limited with a calf injury.

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    By Stephen F. Holder, Times Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    TAMPA — Mounting losses. A coach under fire. Struggles by supposedly star players.

    Yes, this could certainly apply to the 2011 Buccaneers. It's also an apt description of this year's Eagles.

    Riding an eight-game losing streak that is their longest in 42 seasons, the Eagles visit Tampa Bay on Sunday looking to end their nightmare. In the process, they'll encounter a Bucs team that, at this time last season, was right about where the Eagles are.

    Tampa Bay lost the final 10 games last season, its longest such streak since 1977. The fallout was significant. Coach Raheem Morris was fired. Players were sent packing. Those who remained were put on notice.

    If anyone can identify with what the Eagles are experiencing, it's the Bucs.

    "The worst part is when you put your body on the line every week, you prepare as hard as you can, and then you lose again," Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett said. "It's just not a good feeling. You keep trying, but everybody around you, all they do is keep telling you why you should be winning or why you're not winning. It hurts."

    Eagles coach Andy Reid, who has just two losing records in his 13 previous seasons, is learning that.

    After winning six NFC East titles and reaching the NFC Championship Game five times, Reid is under intense scrutiny and is widely expected to be fired at the end of the season. In the City of Brotherly Love, where fans have an interesting way of showing that emotion, Reid has been vilified.

    "When you're two months without a win in Philadelphia, it seems like a long time," Reid said Wednesday. "And it is a long time."

    It has offered ample opportunity for constant speculation about the coach's future, which has become the sport of choice in the sports-crazed town.

    It's the kind of thing that can have a noticeable effect in the locker room, where Reid is well-liked by his players; sort of how Morris was popular among his players in Tampa.

    "It bothers you," Bennett said. "Those coaches are your friends. Some (players) are closer to their coaches than they are to their fathers. It takes a big toll."

    The Eagles haven't won since Sept. 30. In the weeks since, none of their numerous changes — on the coaching staff, in the lineup and elsewhere — has produced a victory. And, like the 2011 Bucs, the drop-off was shocking given their encouraging start.

    Philadelphia opened 3-1 with victories over the Ravens and Giants, before lapsing into this winless streak. Last season, the Bucs began 4-2 before their 10 straight defeats.

    "There's a fine line between winning and losing in the National Football League," Reid said, trying to keep things in perspective. "It's never as good as you think and it's never as bad as you think."

    The onfield struggles have compounded what has been a difficult season, personally, for Reid. His 29-year old son, Garrett, died Aug. 5 from what later was determined to be a heroin overdose.

    "He's gone through a lot this year, and it's amazing how strong he's been through it," said rookie quarterback Nick Foles, who this week was named the starter for the rest of the season. "He's a man of faith. He's a great role model."

    Said Bucs coach Greg Schiano: "Andy's a great coach and a great person. I have experiences with Andy that no one knows about. He did some things that are incredible. He's a great football coach and an even better man."

    None of that makes Reid nor his team exempt from the ramifications of a horrible season. The Eagles already have fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and defensive line coach Jim Washburn. Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin was waived last week. Quarterback Michael Vick won't regain his starting job, even when he returns from his concussion.

    "Losing eight straight games is not fun," Reid said. "That's a miserable thing. But I know that through all that, I still love every minute of the game. I still have a great passion for coaching. … But I sure know that I sure don't like losing. That's not a fun thing."

    Anyone associated with the 2011 Bucs surely could have told him that.

    Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@tampabay.com.

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    By Tom Jones, Times Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    Sign him. There's no reason to wait. We've seen enough.

    Josh Freeman is the man. Today. Tomorrow. Next Sunday. Next season. For years to come.

    Freeman is the franchise quarterback the Bucs have been looking for since … well, forever.

    General manager Mark Dominik might as well pick up the phone right now and call Freeman's agent, who also happens to be Freeman's father, to start discussing a long-term contract extension. The conversation starts at about $100 million.

    What's the hurry, you say? Freeman still has four games left this season and then all of next season on his original five-year, $26 million contract. Why not wait?

    Here's what I say: Why wait?

    What, you still don't believe in Freeman? You think there's an available quarterback out there who is better? Are you ready to start from scratch with someone new?

    Let's look at Freeman and why the Bucs should get cracking on that long-term extension.

    He is the franchise QB

    Freeman's detractors will talk about completion percentage and this bad throw and that bad read and argue Freeman is not a franchise quarterback. But at this point, he has to be. The Bucs are married to him now. Starting over with another quarterback isn't realistic.

    What are you going to do, take someone else's scrub such as the 49ers' Alex Smith or the Dolphins' Matt Moore? That's no upgrade. Maybe Freeman is not a top-10 quarterback, but he's hovering just outside that neighborhood and certainly better than any quarterback carrying a clipboard.

    With the success of the Colts' Andrew Luck and Redskins' Robert Griffin III, there's a school of thought that a rookie can come in right away and make an impact. But you're not going to get one of those studs unless you're at the bottom of the league and the top of the draft. Besides, rookie success doesn't guarantee anything. Just look at Carolina's Cam Newton.

    He has earned it

    Freeman's 31/2-year career as a starter has gone up and down, but this really is the only season where he can be fairly judged. This is the first time he has been surrounded by real talent.

    Last year, Freeman's best target was Kellen Winslow Jr., who isn't even in football anymore. Dezmon Briscoe led the team with six touchdown catches. He's barely in the league. Leading rusher LeGarrette Blount ran for fewer than 800 yards and couldn't catch a cold out of the backfield. No wonder Freeman had a lousy season.

    Now look at this year. With a real No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson and a star running back who can run and catch in Doug Martin and Mike Williams moving from a No. 1 receiver to a No. 2, Freeman is having his best season.

    He has thrown 23 touchdowns — more than Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub. He has thrown only eight interceptions — fewer than Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. He's on pace for a career-high 4,000 yards. His 92.1 rating is tied for 10th in the league with Brees. He continues to show a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks.

    Oh, here's another aspect that cannot be ignored. In a league where quarterbacks get hurt all the time, Freeman has missed one start since getting the No. 1 job 53 games ago.

    Potential remains high

    As good as he is now, you have to think Freeman will only get better. The kid is only 24. That's younger than Sam Bradford. That's the same as Ryan Tannehill. And he has more NFL starts than those two combined. He's barely older than Luck, who has started 40 fewer games than Freeman.

    "Absolutely, he has continued to improve,'' said Mike Sullivan, Freeman's third offensive coordinator in four seasons. "If you look at the touchdown-to-interception ratio, that's always going to be a big indicator. I think he has made great strides in his mechanics and his fundamentals, and I think he's headed in the right direction.''

    What kind of deal are we talking about?

    Well, Ryan and the Ravens' Joe Flacco are going to get contract extensions in the offseason. Both came in the year before Freeman but are three years older.

    Ryan could get $20 million a year. Flacco could bring in $16 million, maybe more. Don't be surprised if Freeman slots somewhere between the two. Brace yourself. We're talking something like six years for upwards of $100 million.

    No question that's a lot of money. But that's the going rate.

    Final thought

    There certainly is a risk of signing Freeman sooner rather that later. The Jets signed Mark Sanchez to a fat extension last offseason, and Jets fans are ready to run him out of New York. There's a risk in waiting, too. Prices might go up. Freeman might get a wandering eye.

    But here's the deal: Freeman likely isn't going anywhere. You rarely see a quarterback test the open market after his first contract. If Freeman looks like he's headed in that direction, the Bucs could place a franchise tag on him and will have to pay him crazy money anyway. And serious conversations about a new contract probably won't happen until after the season.

    Here's the point: It's time to come out and say Freeman is your guy. It's time to put the future of the franchise in Freeman's hands.

    It starts with a phone call.

    It ends with a signature.

    Tom Jones can be reached at tjones @tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.


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  • 12/05/12--18:41: Sports in brief
  • Times wires
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012


    Stewart says no to double of indy-sprint cup

    INDIANAPOLIS — Tony Stewart is passing up a chance to race for Roger Penske in next year's Indianapolis 500.

    The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion said Wednesday he wouldn't attempt to race in the Indy 500 and Sprint Cup's Coca-Cola 600 on May 26.

    "As much as I would like to do it, we just don't have the time to do it proper," Stewart said. "You're not going to just show up like drivers used to do in the past and be competitive."

    Penske extended the invitation last week. Stewart has raced the Indy 500 five times. He twice has run the 500 and the 600 on the same day, in 1999 and 2001.

    IndyCar: Ryan Hunter-Reay will recognize his series championship next year by using the No. 1 on his Andretti Autosport entry. He becomes the first defending champion to follow the open-wheel tradition of using No. 1 since Scott Dixon in 2004. He had been using No. 28.


    Champions: Chelsea out; Messi injured

    Juventus knocked defending champion Chelsea out of the European Champions League with a 1-0 win at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine, and Lionel Messi was taken off the field on a cart with a left knee bone bruise as Barcelona tied Benfica 0-0 in the final round of group matches.

    Chelsea needed to better Juventus' result to finish second in Group E and thrashed FC Nordsjaelland 6-1. But Juventus' win got it the top spot. Chelsea is the first reigning champion to exit at the group stage.

    With Barcelona assured of advancing, Messi entered as a reserve in the 58th minute. His left knee collided with the right hand of Benfica's Artur as he ran onto a long pass. After taking a shot, he fell to the field.

    Manchester United, with advancement guaranteed, played reserves and lost to Romania's CFR Cluj 1-0.

    Et cetera

    Golf: Shanshan Feng and Florentyna Parker opened with 6-under 66 at the Dubai Ladies Masters for a one-shot lead over a group of three that included Tampa's Cindy LaCrosse.

    Figure skating: John Coughlin, winner of this year's U.S. pairs title with Caydee Denney of Wesley Chapel, had surgery to repair a torn left hip labrum and is out indefinitely.

    GREYHOUNDS: Flying Spectator and Tmc's Roxslide remained unbeaten, and Art Allen and Jack's Cruze also won second-race races in the $75,000 Holiday Distance Challenge at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg. Qualifying resumes Saturday.

    Don Jensen, Times correspondent; Times wires

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    Times staff
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012


    Broncos (9-3) at Raiders (3-9)

    When/where: 8:20; O.co Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.

    TV/radio: NFL Network; 98.7-FM, 1010-AM

    Line/OU: Broncos by 101/2; 481/2

    The Broncos can move a step closer to a sweep of their AFC West division after clinching it Sunday against the Bucs. Look for Raiders QB Carson Palmer to have difficulty throwing deep, just as the Bucs did. The Oakland defense ranks 28th, providing ample opportunity for more big plays between Broncos QB Peyton Manning and WR Demaryius Thomas. Raiders coach Dennis Allen, who flew to Dallas on Sunday night to be with his father before he died, will coach the team tonight.

    Stephen F. Holder's pick: Broncos 33, Raiders 18

    Injury report

    DENVER at OAKLAND — Broncos: Doubtful: LB Wesley Woodyard (ankle). Questionable: WR Brandon Stokley (hip). Probable: DE Robert Ayers (not injury related), TE Virgil Green (hamstring), G Chris Kuper (ankle), G Manny Ramirez (back), WR Matthew Willis (knee). Raiders: Out: DT Richard Seymour (knee, hamstring). Questionable: CB Phillip Adams (concussion), DE Jack Crawford (toe). Probable: T Khalif Barnes (triceps), S Tyvon Branch (neck), WR Juron Criner (shoulder), S Matt Giordano (concussion), RB Mike Goodson (ankle), RB Taiwan Jones (ankle), RB Darren McFadden (ankle), S Mike Mitchell (concussion), TE Brandon Myers (shoulder), QB Carson Palmer (right thumb), RB Marcel Reece (hamstring, quadriceps).

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    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Heads bowed, past and present Chiefs players turned out Wednesday for a memorial service for teammate Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and then himself over the weekend.

    Belcher shot Kasandra Perkins, 22, on Saturday at the home they shared with their 3-month-old daughter, Zoey. He then drove to the Chiefs practice facility, where coach Romeo Crennel, general manager Scott Pioli and defensive assistant Gary Gibbs witnessed Belcher commit suicide.

    The team altered its practice schedule so players could attend the afternoon service. The media wasn't allowed inside.

    Chiefs Hall of Famer Bobby Bell said Pioli and an uncle of Belcher's spoke at the service.

    "It's done and over with, and people need to get on with their lives, and the team needed to try to get forward," Bell said. "It's tough on them."

    Before the service, veteran offensive lineman Ryan Lilja said some players have taken advantage of counseling services and there has been a change around the team. "There definitely is more, 'How you doing? How you feeling? How you coping?' " Lilja said. "There's definitely more of that, and people leaning on each other, and be an ear when they need it."

    Belcher's mother, Cheryl Shepherd, who had been living with the couple, expressed her love for both her son and his girlfriend.

    "That's my son, and I love him," Shepherd said via telephone. "She's my daughter-in-law, just like my daughter."

    In her 911 call, released publicly Wednesday, Shepherd begs Perkins to "stay with me" while asking for an ambulance. She tells the dispatcher that Perkins is "still breathing but please hurry. … They were arguing."

    She has temporary custody of the couple's baby.

    Ryan sticks with Sanchez: Coach Rex Ryan said Mark Sanchez will return as starter this week over Greg McElroy, who led the Jets to a winning TD last week. "I knew at some point before I died, I'd start at quarterback again," Sanchez said. "I'm glad it's this week."

    Ben's return? Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went through his first serious workout since spraining his right shoulder and dislocating a rib Nov. 12, reporting no major issues, so he appears to be on track to start this week. "I'm getting there," he said. Coach Mike Tomlin declined to name Roethlisberger the starter over Charlie Batch just yet.

    Cardinals: Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said he has apologized to teammate Kerry Rhodes for the pair's argument during the waning seconds of a loss. The former Seminole said Rhodes has forgiven him. Rhodes tried to persuade Dockett to allow the Jets to score so the Cardinals could get the ball back and try for a winning touchdown. "It's something that I don't believe in, something that I didn't understand," Dockett said. "It was frustrating at the time. … I play with passion and I'll never quit." Also, John Skelton will start at quarterback in place of rookie Ryan Lindley against Seattle, coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

    Jaguars: With three backs injured, the team plans to start former fullback Montell Owens against the Jets. He has 21 carries in his seven-year career.

    Packers: Running back Ryan Grant, fifth on the team's all-time rushing list (4,016 yards), was signed to add depth in the wake of Cedric Benson (foot) and Johnny White (concussion) going on injured reserve.

    Ravens: Linebacker Ray Lewis, initially expected to miss the rest of the season after tearing his triceps two months ago, returned to practice. There is no timetable for his return to playing.

    Seahawks: Cornerback Brandon Browner dropped the appeal of his suspension for using performance-enhancing substances and will miss the final four games of the regular season.

    Vikings: Receiver Percy Harvin (sprained left ankle) was put on season-ending injured reserve.

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    Times wires
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    TALLAHASSEE — Florida's guards made the difference — a big one — in an easy win over archrival Florida State on Wednesday night.

    Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario scored 14 each as the No. 6 Gators romped to a 72-47 victory over the defending ACC Tournament champs before 10,593 at the Tucker Center.

    Freshman Michael Frazier of Tampa had 12 points, Scottie Wilbekin had five assists and five steals, and 6-foot-9 Patric Young finished with 10 points and eight rebounds for the Gators.

    "Hopefully what our guys are able to see is that our sum — our total — is maybe bigger than one or two individuals," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "That's a good sign of a team."

    No one was more impressed with Florida's performance than FSU coach Leonard Hamilton.

    "We ran into one of the better teams that we've played since I've been at Florida State," said Hamilton, who is in his 11th season at the school. "They've found the magic level They understand who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and they're just executing until they find the mistake that you're going to make and they make you pay."

    Time and again it turned out.

    It took the Gators just five minutes to take a 12-2 lead, and the rout was on.

    "We took care of business in the first four minutes, and that's what really determined the game," said Boynton, whose layup with 8:57 left gave Florida its largest lead, 62-25. "We didn't want to slow the game down. We could have beat them by more."

    Florida (7-0), which has held five teams below 50 points this season and is winning by an average of more than 25 points, won its fourth straight over the Seminoles (4-4), who have lost three straight at home after their most lopsided defeat to the Gators since a 96-61 loss in 1999.

    "They were struggling switching pick and rolls with their bigger guys," Young said.

    Michael Snaer led FSU with 10 points, all in the second half. It was the second straight game that he started slowly; he failed to even take a shot in the first half of Sunday's loss to Mercer.

    "When your system is not in synch, it's difficult for any of the guys to execute," Hamilton said after the most lopsided loss in the UF-FSU series in games played in the state capital. "I think he'll be fine."

    Snaer's first field goal came with his team down by 37 and many of the Seminole fans already headed home.

    Florida, which went into the game ranked second nationally in scoring defense, had the Seminoles baffled from the outset, forcing 13 turnovers in the first half and outrebounding them 21-11. FSU shot 25 percent in the opening half and managed three points over the final 8:54.

    "Late in the game I turned to my assistants and I said 'Can we really be this bad?' " Hamilton said.

    IN THE HOUSE: Huntington (W. Va.) Prep's Andrew Wiggins, rated by Rivals and ESPN as the nation's No. 1 recruit, was in attendance. The 6-foot-7, 205-pound forward was making his official visit to FSU with a pair of former Seminole greats: father Mitchell Wiggins, a former NBA first-round pick, and mother Marita Payne-Wiggins, a two-time Olympic track medalist. The 17-year-old reportedly is choosing among FSU, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Syracuse and Ohio State.

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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    By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    NASHVILLE — Even if the Rays don't do anything else before the winter meetings end today, they still will have had a successful trip.

    They traded for shortstop Yunel Escobar, who manager Joe Maddon says "could really make a huge difference for us." They made a deal to sign first baseman James Loney with the expectation he'll be a defensive standout and an offensive improvement.

    And they talked enough with agents and other teams — in numerous configurations of assorted deals — to get a much clearer sense of what players are and are not realistic possibilities to be in uniform April 2.

    "I think we're narrowing down the potential scenarios in how we construct our roster," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "There's a few potential outcomes that are really exciting to us, and we're going to work toward trying to make them materialize."

    However that unfolds — and whatever that really means — could obviously change the dynamic. As could a decision to trade a starter, with ongoing chatter about swapping James Shields (or Jeremy Hellickson) for Royals mega-prospect Wil Myers.

    But to this point, and with about $60 million committed, here's a look at what they have:

    A significantly improved defensive infield, which includes Ben Zobrist moving back to second. Uncertainty over how their outfield will be aligned and DH spot filled as they seek one or two more position players, preferably who swing impact bats. A remaining surplus for the rotation that includes Wade Davis, who is no longer being viewed as a reliever. And a couple of spots to fill in the bullpen, with the chances increasingly unlikely for J.P. Howell to return as the market for lefty relievers soars.

    Zobrist, whom Maddon called to tell him about the Escobar trade, said "I'm good" with shifting back from shortstop, as much as he enjoyed it, to what looks to be his previous role, playing second base against right-handers and the outfield vs. lefties.

    "Disappointed? I don't think that's the right word for it," Zobrist said. "We're upgrading our team, and that's what we're all about. So if that upgrades our team, I'm all for it."

    The Rays are revved up about what Escobar, acquired Tuesday from Miami for prospect Derek Dietrich, can do with his glove and his bat.

    And, apparently, realistic about the flaws in his game, which include a reputation for showboating and lapses in concentration.

    "We've talked to some of our players that have played with him, and they say good things about him in the clubhouse, and they like him as a teammate," Maddon said.

    "There's been different issues on the field. He can be flamboyant, I don't deny that. But you've got to be careful; you don't want to take all that away from a guy, either, because part of his success may be rooted in that. That's just who he is. So you have to, as you're attempting to try to make it better, don't subtract what makes him tick, either.

    "I think it's conversational — just try to have him understand where you're coming from. I think we'll get a lot of support from other players on the team talking to him, also. … I find it challenging, but I don't see it as an overt challenge. I think it's a little bit overblown regarding his disposition and how he is."

    Toronto coach Luis Rivera, who worked with Escobar the past two seasons, said the 30-year-old has gotten better, both in toning down the showboating — "He understands it's more about fielding the ball and making the play than being on SportsCenter" — and staying into the games mentally, though still with some lapses.

    "I really like him," Rivera said. "They made a good choice. They don't have to worry about moving anybody else to shortstop. He's got everything. He just has to put it together."

    Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

    Getty ImagesGetty Images

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    By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    NASHVILLE — Add INF Jeff Keppinger to the list of players who should thank the Rays for the opportunity. And prepare to tack on LHP J.P. Howell as well.

    Plucked off the non-tender list by the Rays, Keppinger parlayed his strong 2012 season in Tampa Bay into a jackpot, agreeing Wednesday to a three-year, $12 million deal with the White Sox to be their starting third baseman.

    Keppinger made $1.525 million last season while hitting .325, with nine homers and 40 RBIs, as the Rays used him in a variety of roles to maximize his production.

    The Rays had interest in bringing him back but quickly got the sense he would get more — in years and dollars — than they would offer.

    "We're really happy for Kepp," Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "He's true pro. He came in and fit in extremely well in our clubhouse, exhibited great versatility and crushed left-handed pitching. He did a really good job for us in a variety of roles. He's certainly going to be missed. And it worked out really well for him."

    Howell said Wednesday his agent hadn't made him aware of any specific offers, thought the Nationals are reported to be heavily interested.

    And with lefties raking in big bucks this offseason, starting with Jeremy Affeldt getting $18 million over six years from the Giants and, on Wednesday, Sean Burnett getting $8 million over two years from the Angels and Randy Choate $7.5 million over three from the Cards, the chances of Howell returning to the Rays are diminishing.

    RAYS MATTERS: Braves INF Juan Francisco, who has big power, is a potential trade target. … Reserve OF Nate Schierholtz chose to sign with the Cubs over the Rays, per ESPN. … 1B James Loney's signing is expected to be announced today following successful completion of his physical. … The Rays are unlikely to make a pick in today's Rule 5 draft of minor-leaguers not on 40-man rosters; INF Cole Figueroa and LHP Braulio Lara are possibilities to be selected, according to Baseball America. … The Dodgers are among the teams with interest in RHP James Shields. … 1B/DH Dan Johnson has interest in returning but may end up going to Japan. … Agent Scott Boras said free-agent 1B Carlos Peña, despite his rough 2012 season with the Rays, "is still productive and he's gotten interest in this market."

    NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE: Manager Joe Maddon left Nashville to launch a 10-day good-deed tour, as he serves his seventh annual Thanksmas dinner at Tampa Bay-area Salvation Army Shelters then heads to Pennsylvania for fundraisers benefiting the Hazleton Integration Project in his hometown.

    The first event is Friday, a fundraiser for the Thanksmas project at Tampa's 717 South restaurant (717 S Howard St.) from 5 p.m. on, with the restaurant preparing the Italian/Polish holiday meal and Rays players and coaches working as guest servers.

    After shopping and cooking over the weekend, Maddon and the team will serve meals at shelters in St. Petersburg on Monday and Wednesday and in Clearwater and Tampa on Tuesday. He then heads to Hazleton for a weekend of events.

    JOSH, AND DEALS: OF Josh Hamilton, the top free agent, met with the Red Sox and continues to talk with the Rangers. … Top RHP Zack Greinke's main suitors look to be the Dodgers and Rangers. … The Red Sox talked about trading CF Jacoby Ellsbury but say they plan to keep him for now. … Among deals agreed to Wednesday: RHP Joe Blanton got $15 million over two years from the Angels; OF Jason Bay with the Mariners; OF Nate McLouth with the Orioles.

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    Times wires
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah State player who collapsed at practice and had to be revived after he stopped breathing is improving and making good progress, school officials said Wednesday night, though he remains in critical condition.

    Danny Berger is awake and talking to his family in a Salt Lake City area hospital, team doctor Trek Lyons said at a news conference in Logan. Tubes used to help Berger breathe have been removed.

    "He recognizes his family, his doctors and the instructions he is given," Lyons said. "It is a good sign and a sign of improving."

    Doctors don't know what caused Berger, 22, to collapse on the court during a practice Tuesday in Logan. Berger doesn't have any known pre-existing condition or heart problems, Lyons said.

    "As a well-conditioned athlete, he goes through a stress test every day," Lyons said. "It just reminds us that some things are still unpredictable."

    A team of doctors — including cardiologists, pulmonologists and trauma specialists — is running tests on Berger in the intensive care unit at Intermountain Medical Center in a Salt Lake City suburb, hospital spokesman Jess Gomez said.

    Berger is responding the way "doctors want him to," older brother John said Wednesday afternoon.

    "As of right now, things are looking good," John Berger said in a statement he read to reporters. John Berger was with his sister, Lauren Berger. They did not take any questions.

    Despite the improvements, Berger remains in critical condition, Gomez said.

    Longtime Utah State assistant athletic trainer Mike Williams is being credited with saving Berger's life.

    In the middle of practice, Berger collapsed into the arms of teammate Kyisean Reed as he moved toward the sideline. He was not breathing when he hit the court, Lyons said.

    Within a minute or two, Williams used a defibrillator on Berger, who was in full cardiac arrest, he said. The shocks helped Berger regain a pulse.

    NO. 18 NEW MEXICO 75, USC 67: Hugh Greenwood had 17 points and Alex Kirk 13 plus 13 rebounds for the host Lobos (9-0).

    NO. 19 MICH. ST. 76, ARK.-PINE BLUFF 44: Garry Harris scored 13 and Travis Trice 12 for the host Spartans (7-2), who held the Golden Lions scoreless for almost 10 minutes.

    Women: USF at 7-0

    TAMPA — Andrell Smith had 19 points and Inga Orekhova added 15 as USF beat Florida Gulf Coast 67-46 to improve to 7-0 for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

    "This was a very good win for our group," coach Jose Fernandez said. "We just have to keep moving and take one game at a time."

    The Bulls pulled away in the second half, hitting 5 of 9 3-pointers and holding the Eagles to 5-of-26 shooting (19.2 percent).

    NO. 3 BAYLOR 73, NO. 5 NOTRE DAME 61: Brittney Griner had 24 points and 14 rebounds, three other Bears scored in double figures and visiting Baylor (7-1) won a rematch of last season's national championship game. The Fighting Irish (5-1), with two starters returning, could do little to slow Griner and Baylor, which brought back every starter from its 40-0 team.

    NO. 21 UNC 64, RADFORD 44: Waltiea Rolle had 24 points and Xylina McDaniel 16 points and eight rebounds for the host Tar Heels (8-1), who bounced back from Sunday's blowout loss to Tennessee.

    CREIGHTON 66, NO. 25 NEBRASKA 57: Marissa Janning scored 19 off the bench on 7-of-10 shooting for the host Bluejays, who upset the Cornhuskers (6-3) for their first win over a ranked team since 2008.

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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    By James Poling, Special to the Times
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    STILLWATER, Okla. — USF's defense was impressive, holding a ranked and likely NCAA Tournament-bound opponent to its fewest points of the season.

    But the Bulls offense failed to make the defensive performance matter.

    Poor shooting never allowed USF to get into a rhythm as it lost 61-49 at No. 23 Oklahoma State on Wednesday night.

    The Bulls (5-3) shot 34 percent, their worst this season. The strong defensive effort allowed them to stay within one possession of the Cowboys for most of the game, but the home team used an 18-4 run midway through the second half to put victory out of reach.

    The game marked the first time USF had used the same starting lineup more than once.

    "We just couldn't make shots," USF coach Stan Heath said. "I think they are good defensively, but I thought we had some really good looks that just didn't go down. We didn't keep pace."

    Forward Victor Rudd led the Bulls with 14 points and added six rebounds, but the point guards delivered the key matchup of the game.

    Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart, projected by some as an NBA lottery pick, and USF's Anthony Collins went back-and-forth making plays throughout the night. Smart finished with 13 points, six rebounds and five assists, while Collins scored 12 to go with four assists and four steals.

    "If I weren't coaching the game, I would have had a blast watching (Collins) and Smart go at each other," Heath said. "That was a great matchup. I thought they jammed the lane up, but Collins keeps coming at you. After a while, he did get in there and make some things happen."

    Lack of size was an issue for the Bulls. The Cowboys outrebounded them 41-28, and Heath said he would likely have to rotate who starts at center the rest of the season to find a fit.

    Attacking inside on offense is a point of emphasis for USF, something Rudd said he is striving to do more.

    "We've got to learn to get to the basket more," Rudd said. "Right now we have only one or two guys driving to the basket.

    "Oklahoma State is a good team, and I think we did well. We know we could have beat them, but things happen."

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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    By Greg Auman and Tia Mitchell, Times Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 5, 2012

    TALLAHASSEE — As USF's search for a coach entered its fourth day Wednesday, president Judy Genshaft made her first comments about the process, answering questions at a news conference on funding.

    "We are receiving a lot of names. We are very, very encouraged by the number of people that are interested in the position, and I'm going to wait to hear from our athletic director about narrowing down the huge numbers that we've gotten," she said.

    "We don't know who our coach is going to be, but we have a great future. The search is amazing. People have been calling and giving us names of those who are very, very interested; really, really high-level people.

    The coach generating much of the buzz, Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart, returned to his campus Wednesday after two days in Manhattan, where multiple reports had him interviewing Tuesday with USF athletic director Doug Woolard. Taggart declined to comment, saying his focus is on his alma mater's game Dec. 26, the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl in Detroit.

    "I don't talk about any other job but the one I have, and the one I have is WKU," he said.

    Asked if he had been contacted by other schools, Taggart said: "Antonio Andrews has a chance to break Barry Sanders' record, and aren't we all excited?" referencing his running back's chance to break the Division I-A season record of 3,250 all-purpose yards.

    Taggart continues to draw public endorsements for the job. The NFL's 49ers got enough media requests for comments from Taggart's close friend, coach Jim Harbaugh, that they issued a statement: "Any football program would be very lucky to have Willie Taggart as their head coach."

    Harbaugh recruited Taggart to play for his father, Jack, at Western Kentucky, hired him as running backs coach at Stanford and was the best man at his wedding.

    There also was news Wednesday involving two coaches mentioned as candidates for USF.

    Florida International fired Mario Cristobal, who went 3-9 just a year after nearly landing the coaching job at Rutgers. Multiple reports Wednesday named Bucs special assistant Butch Davis as the leading candidate for FIU's job. Davis is close with FIU athletic director Pete Garcia, who worked with him at Miami from 1995-2000.

    Bucs coach Greg Schiano wouldn't address Davis' situation but acknowledged having coaches linked to openings comes with the territory.

    "If you hire good coaches, other people are going to come and try to take your coaches," he said. "That's a compliment. In all my time at Rutgers, we lost a lot of coaches to other programs. Everyone would get mad, and I'd say, 'That means we're hiring the right coaches.' When no one wants to hire your guys, then you hired the wrong coaches."

    Former Arkansas and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said after an initial conversation with the Bulls, he had not heard back to schedule an interview.

    In addition, Eddie Gran, Florida State's special teams coordinator and running backs coach, was mentioned by cbssports.com's Bruce Feldman.

    Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.

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