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    Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Cubs scout Sam Hughes watches Colin Kaepernick nowadays and still wonders what the strong-armed quarterback might look like on a pitching mound. It's hard not to, seeing the fierce focus, and the zip and accuracy on each throw.

    The Cubs never even watched Kaepernick throw a baseball before drafting him in the 43rd round almost four years ago. They did watch him throw a football for Nevada, and decided that college game told them more than enough.

    Ultimately, the Cubs couldn't lure Kaepernick away from football. Now, he's headed to the Super Bowl to lead the 49ers against the Ravens on Feb. 3.

    Hughes, the national cross-checker, and then-GM Jim Hendry drafted him anyway and hoped Kaepernick might reconsider.

    "Yeah, that wasn't happening," Kaepernick said Wednesday.

    Hughes tried for two weeks to convince Kaepernick, who had made it all but clear he wouldn't sign. He was surprised he was drafted at all given he had been so upfront about sticking with football.

    The 49ers picked Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, made him the starter midseason this year and now will ask him to carry them to the franchise's sixth title in what will be his 10th career NFL start.

    "I was looking at this tall, kind of gangly at the time, quarterback that was superathletic and had this really long throwing motion," Hughes said. "I was talking to some of my buddies at Reno and said, 'Boy, I wonder if this kid's ever played baseball, he's got an arm stroke like a pitcher.' "

    That sent Hughes on a research project. Kaepernick regularly threw 90 mph in high school, but was 40 pounds heavier as a college football player. He certainly would throw harder.

    "So, I was definitely intrigued, bigger, stronger, more athletic," Hughes said. "Colin had no idea we were even considering drafting him. I kind of caught him off guard when I called him after we drafted him. He kind of got a kick out of it. … He had no idea."

    Sock fine for 49er: RB Frank Gore was fined $10,500 by the NFL after he wore his socks too low in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, his second uniform violation. "Yeah, I'll be cool. It's all good," Gore said of being up to code for the Super Bowl. "I was wrong. Next time I'll do better."

    Raven KO's Pats: SS Bernard Pollard's legal helmet-to-helmet hit on Patriots RB Stevan Ridley forced a fourth-quarter fumble that proved to be pivotal in an upset victory over New England.

    "That was the turning point of the football game there on the 40-yard line," coach John Harbaugh said. "It was just a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest."

    It's not as if Pollard hadn't done it before. When he was with the Chiefs in 2008, Pollard inadvertently hit Patriots QB Tom Brady in the knee. One year later, New England WR Wes Welker tore his ACL on a tackle by Pollard. Then, in last year's AFC title game, Pollard sprained the ankle of Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski.

    Pollard makes no apologies for his aggressive play against Ridley, which did not draw a flag because Ridley was not considered a defenseless player.

    "This is a violent sport. We run fast, we hit hard," Pollard said. "For me, I love to play this game. I love to tackle. That's what I do. When you have two guys running full speed at each other, and you have helmets and shoulder pads on, somebody is going to go down. It's not something that I'm proud of. I hope he's all right."

    Getty ImagesGetty Images

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    Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    Junior Seau's ex-wife and four children sued the NFL on Wednesday, alleging the former linebacker's suicide resulted from a brain disease sustained while playing football.

    The wrongful death lawsuit, filed in San Diego, blames the NFL for its "acts or omissions" that hid the dangers of repetitive blows to the head. It says Seau developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy from those hits and accuses the NFL of ignoring and concealing evidence of the risks associated with traumatic brain injuries and concussions.

    Seau, who shot himself in May, was diagnosed with CTE earlier this month.

    About 3,800 former players have sued the NFL over head injuries in about 175 cases. Many have been consolidated before a federal judge in Philadelphia.

    "Our attorneys will review it and respond to the claims appropriately through the court," the NFL said in a statement.

    Helmet manufacturer Riddell also is a defendant, the Seau family alleging it was "negligent in their design, testing, assembly, manufacture, marketing and engineering of the helmets."

    Riddell said it is "confident in the integrity of our products."

    Seau, 43, was one of the best linebackers during his 20 seasons in the NFL, retiring in 2009.

    "We know this lawsuit will not bring back Junior," the family said in a statement. "But it will send a message that the NFL needs to care for its former players, acknowledge its decades of deception on the issue of head injuries and player safety and make the game safer for future generations."

    Russell seeks return

    JaMarcus Russell said he hopes to come back to the NFL. The quarterback and top overall pick by the Raiders in 2007 has not taken a snap since 2009 and last had a tryout in 2010. Russell, 27, currently weighs 308 pounds, down from 320 in the fall.

    "People would say I didn't love the game, but that (angers) me," he said. "People are always saying that I'm a bust. I want to show them I'm not."

    Former Bucs receiver and fellow LSU star Michael Clayton has become Russell's mentor, Yahoo Sports, reported. He also reportedly plans to work with, among others, former Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia and Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk.

    Brady fined: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was fined $10,000 by the league for raising his cleat and kicking Ravens safety Ed Reed in the thigh while sliding during the AFC title game.

    Stabbing: James Lewis McCoy of Villa Rica, Ga., was arrested in connection with a man's stabbing outside the Georgia Dome after the NFC title game. The victim remains hospitalized in stable condition. No charges have been filed yet. Police said the stabbing did not result from a dispute between rival fans; instead from a dispute about food at a tailgate. Neither McCoy nor the victim attended the game, police say.

    Browns: New coach Rob Chud­zinski said it's "premature" to name Brandon Weeden his starting quarterback for next season. Chudzinski said he has been too busy putting together a staff to evaluate Weeden, who just completed his rookie season.

    Raiders: Tony Sparano, fired as Jets offensive coordinator, was hired as assistant head coach. He primarily will work with the offensive line.

    Getty Images (2009)Getty Images (2009)

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    Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    Former Raiders coach Bill Callahan denied an accusation from former player Tim Brown — and supported by another former player, Jerry Rice — that he "sabotaged" the team's Super Bowl XXXVII chances against the Bucs by changing the game plan late in the preparation process.

    Brown said Saturday that the game plan given to the team the Monday before the January 2003 Super Bowl, which the Bucs won 48-21, called for a run-heavy attack. But Brown said Callahan changed to a pass-heavy approach the following Friday.

    Brown alleged Callahan so hated the organization for which he worked that he wanted his friend, Bucs coach Jon Gruden, to win the game instead. In a statement he released late Tuesday, Callahan, now a Cowboys assistant, said he was "shocked" at the allegation.

    "While I fully understand a competitive professional football player's disappointment when a game's outcome doesn't go his team's way, I am shocked, saddened and outraged by Tim Brown's allegations and Jerry Rice's support of those allegations," the statement read.

    "Like every game I ever coached on the professional or collegiate level, I endeavor to the best of my professional ability to position my team to win. To suggest otherwise … is ludicrous and defamatory. I think it would be in the best interests of all, including the game America loves, that these allegations be retracted immediately."

    On Wednesday, Brown backed off his allegation, denying he used the word "sabotage."

    "I never called it sabotage," he said (contradicting himself after saying Saturday, "We all called it sabotage.")

    "I wouldn't say that because that's not something I would ever have knowledge about. But I have to say the word was thrown around not just by myself … right after the game."

    Rich Gannon, the Raiders' quarterback in the Super Bowl, said he does not agree with Brown and Rice, adding the game plan was not changed.

    "We came out and tried to run the football early in that game," Gannon said. "We didn't have a lot of success. We fell behind, and at that point we started throwing the ball too much."

    The Raiders, who trailed 20-3 at halftime, ran it 11 times (for 19 yards) and threw it 44 times.

    Callahan's new co-worker, former Bucs defensive coordinator and now Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, said little when asked about the controversy.

    "I have no comment on that. I want to stay away from that," Kiffin said.

    "I would like to think that we played pretty good that day."

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  • 01/23/13--19:28: Hurricanes claim first No. 1

  • Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    No. 25 Miami delighted a sellout crowd by pulverizing top-ranked Duke, blowing out the visiting Blue Devils with a 25-1 first-half run. It was the Hurricanes' first victory over a No. 1 team in seven tries. "We played a complete game, we did everything we planned on doing, and we did it at the highest level," Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. Story, 6C

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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    By Mike Vorkunov, Special to the Times
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    NEWARK, N.J. — Stan Heath did not miss the opportunity to point out the similarity to his team.

    Down seven at halftime to Seton Hall, the USF coach reminded his players in the locker room that it had been down eight to Georgetown on Saturday before the Bulls rallied for their first Big East victory of the season.

    That is where the parallel ended. Where they had came out with a barrage of 3-pointers against the Hoyas, it was one missed opportunity after another Wednesday night in the Bulls' 55-47 loss to Seton Hall at the Prudential Center.

    The Pirates took an eight-point lead midway through the first half, and USF was forced to chase from there. It became a game of unsustainable momentum for the Bulls, each run met with a push back from the Pirates, and their first conference win was followed by a loss to the team that had shared rent in the Big East basement.

    "It's just a roller coaster," Heath said of the game. "We're making progress, and we take a step back. We're making progress, and we take a step back. So at the end of the day the shooting wasn't there, more than anything else. We had some good looks, sometimes we rushed it, but we just didn't make enough shots."

    Jawanza Poland had 13 points to lead the Bulls (10-8, 1-5 Big East) for the third straight game. Point guard Anthony Collins had 10 assists while scoring six.

    The Pirates (13-6, 2-4) were determined to take away the 3-point shot from USF, its bread and butter. Facing a zone, the Bulls hit just 3 of 19 long-range tries; they had gone into the night averaging 6.5 per game. USF shot just 33.9 percent overall (19-of-56).

    The final minute was emblematic. After USF had cut an 11-point deficit to 53-47, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick missed a 3 with 56 seconds left. Following a missed free throw by Fuquan Edwin, Victor Rudd misfired on a 3 with 37 seconds remaining, and Poland missed the tip-in.

    "Three-point shots were the story of the game," Heath said. "More than anything else, the 3-point shot and our inability to make it was the story of the game. When you're playing a team that's playing zone, you have to make some shots."

    It was an ill-timed performance considering their defense was burned by the Pirates, who shot 52.5 percent for the game and outrebounded USF by 13. Edwin led the way with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

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    Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    NEW YORK — Marian Gaborik scored twice in the first period and completed a hat trick 27 seconds into overtime as the Rangers overcame two blown leads and beat the Bruins 4-3 Wednesday for their first win of the season.

    Gaborik broke free and outraced Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk down the ice. His first shot was blocked by goalie Tuukka Rask, but Gaborik batted the rebound out of the air.

    The Rangers squandered leads of 2-0 in the second period and 3-2 in the third. "I love the way we responded, both in the second period and a big goal in OT," said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who made 26 saves.

    Game highlights: The Maple Leafs raced past the Penguins 5-2 in Pittsburgh's home opener but lost key forward Joffrey Lupul to a fractured arm. He was hit by a teammate's shot. Sidney Crosby and reigning league scoring champion Evgeni Malkin scored their first goals of the season for Pittsburgh.

    Around the league: The first suspension of the season goes to Flyers forward Brayden Schenn, banned one game for "a reckless elbow to the head" of Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov on Tuesday. No penalty was assessed on the play. … Flyers forward Scott Hartnell, their leading goal scorer last season, is out indefinitely with a left foot injury; he was hit by a shot Tuesday. … Avalanche and former Lighting forward Steve Downie will have season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL sustained Tuesday against the Kings. … The Sharks signed free agent center Scott Gomez to a one-year deal that ESPN reported is worth $700,000. Gomez, a 12-year veteran and two-time All-Star, had the final two years of his contract with the Canadiens bought out last week. Buyouts are new to the league in the collective bargaining agreement reached this month. … NBC's opening-day coverage Saturday — Kings- Blackhawks and Penguins-Flyers — was the league's most-watched regular-season broadcast in 14 years, excluding Winter Classics, according to final Nielsen ratings. The regional coverage was watched by 2.77 million viewers.

    at Rangers 2 1 0 1 4
    Bruins 0 2 1 0 3

    First Period1, NYR, Gaborik 1 (Nash, Richards), 4:36. 2, NYR, Gaborik 2 (Del Zotto, Staal), 6:49. PenaltiesBoyle, NYR (tripping), 9:56; Kreider, NYR (hooking), 15:16; McQuaid, Bos, served by Thornton, minor-major (roughing, fighting), 17:31; Boyle, NYR, major (fighting), 17:31.

    Second Period3, Boston, Marchand 2 (Hamilton, Peverley), 1:05 (pp). 4, Boston, Lucic 2 (Chara, Krejci), 12:24. 5, NYR, Pyatt 2 (Stepan), 13:10. PenaltiesStaal, NYR (slashing), :18; Pyatt, NYR (tripping), 5:21; Chara, Bos (high-sticking), 8:35; Rupp, NYR (roughing), 16:24.

    Third Period6, Boston, Horton 1 (Campbell), 15:37. PenaltiesJohnson, Bos (tripping), 4:30; McQuaid, Bos (boarding), 5:17; Kelly, Bos (interference), 13:55; Nash, NYR (holding), 13:55; Paille, Bos (tripping), 16:10.

    Overtime7, NYR, Gaborik 3, :27. PenaltiesNone. Shots on GoalBoston 8-10-11-0—29. NYR 11-9-11-2—33. Power-play opportunitiesBoston 1 of 5; NYR 0 of 5. GoaliesBoston, Rask 2-0-1 (33 shots-29 saves). NYR, Lundqvist 1-2-0 (29-26).

    Maple Leafs 0 3 2 5
    at Penguins 1 1 0 2

    First Period1, Pitts, Malkin 1 (Crosby, Letang), 18:51 (pp). PenaltiesOrr, Tor, major (fighting), 5:58; Engelland, Pit, major (fighting), 5:58; Kunitz, Pit (boarding), 10:22; Gunnarsson, Tor (interference), 15:18; Komisarek, Tor (cross-checking), 17:53.

    Second Period2, Tor, MacArthur 1 (Kadri, Kulemin), 3:09. 3, Tor, van Riemsdyk 1 (Kulemin, Grabovski), 6:48. 4, Pitts, Crosby 1 (Pa.Dupuis), 7:17. 5, Tor, van Riemsdyk 2, 14:34. PenaltiesPa.Dupuis, Pit (hooking), :38; Engelland, Pit (tripping), 8:45; Cooke, Pit (slashing), 9:55; Letang, Pit (boarding), 11:48; Kostka, Tor (holding stick), 15:57.

    Third Period6, Tor, Grabovski 1 (Kulemin, van Riemsdyk), 5:18. 7, Tor, Bozak 2 (MacArthur, Kostka), 18:59 (pp). PenaltiesKostka, Tor (interference), 1:29; van Riemsdyk, Tor (hooking), 11:05; Kunitz, Pit (boarding), 11:51; Crosby, Pit (unsportsmanlike conduct), 18:09; Pitts bench, served by Kunitz (too many men), 18:09; Malkin, Pit, game misconduct, 20:00. Shots on GoalTor 7-10-7—24. Pitts 12-11-7—30. Power-play opportunitiesTor 1 of 8; Pitts 1 of 5. GoaliesTor, Reimer 1-0-0 (30 shots-28 saves). Pitts, Fleury 1-1-0 (24-19).

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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  • 01/23/13--19:57: Butler beaten at buzzer
  • Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    PHILADELPHIA — Tyrone Garland and Ramon Galloway hopped on the scorer's table, stretched their arms in celebration and took in the mayhem. On the court, their La Salle teammates were lost somewhere in a swarm of gold-shirted students.

    A decade of mediocre basketball was forgotten in a flash.

    Out of timeouts, Galloway sprinted the length of the court for the winning basket with 2.7 seconds left to send La Salle to a 54-53 victory over No. 9 Butler on Wednesday night.

    The Explorers hadn't defeated a top 10 team since 1980.

    "It's the greatest feeling ever," Galloway said. "It's one of the greatest wins ever in my life. I know it is for my teammates, too."

    Butler (16-3, 3-1 Atlantic-10) had lived on last-second victories, and Andrew Smith's layup with 8 seconds left put the Bulldogs ahead 53-52. But Galloway took the inbounds, drove past Smith and Roosevelt Jones and banked the shot for the stunner.

    NO. 7 INDIANA 72, PENN ST. 49: Victor Oladipo scored 19 as the host Hoosiers (17-2, 5-1 Big Ten) survived a sluggish first half.

    N'WESTERN 55, NO. 12 MINNESOTA 48: The host Wildcats beat a ranked opponent for the second time in three games and sent the Gophers (15-4, 3-3 Big Ten) to their third straight loss.

    NO. 15 NEW MEXICO 66, COLO. ST. 61: Tony Snell scored 23 and the host Lobos (17-2, 4-0 Mountain West) held off a late rally.

    NO. 16 OREGON 68, WASH. ST. 61: E.J. Singler scored 19 as the host Ducks (17-2, 6-0 Pac-12) rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit.

    DRAKE 74, NO. 17 CREIGHTON 69: Richard Carter scored 20 as the host Bulldogs handed the Bluejays (17-3, 6-2 MVC) their first consecutive losses.

    NO. 20 WICHITA ST. 62, MISSOURI ST. 52: The visiting Shockers (18-2, 7-1 MVC) rallied behind a 16-2 second-half run.

    UCF 78, RICE 67: Isaiah Sykes had 24 points to lead the host Knights (13-5, 3-1 C-USA).

    ECKERD 61, SAINT LEO 57, OT: The visiting Tritons (10-4, 4-3 Sunshine State) beat a Lions (12-4, 5-2) team playing its fourth straight overtime game.

    FLA. SOUTHERN 91, TAMPA 65: The visiting Spartans (13-5, 1-5 SSC) lost for the fourth time in five games.

    NORTH CAROLINA: Junior guard Leslie McDonald was suspended for three games for undisclosed reasons.


    NO. 1 BAYLOR 66, NO. 24 IOWA ST. 51: Brittney Griner dunked for the 11th time in her career as the visiting Bears (17-1, 7-0 Big 12) routed the Cyclones (13-4, 4-3).

    NO. 2 NOTRE DAME 73, PITT 47: Kayla McBride scored 19 to help the visiting Irish (17-1, 6-0 Big East) to their 12th straight win.

    KANSAS ST. 76, NO. 12 OKLA. ST. 70, OT: The host Wildcats made 16 3-pointers to upset the Cowgirls (14-3, 3-3 Big 12).

    SAINT LEO 53, ECKERD 47: The visiting Lions (9-8, 4-3 Sunshine State) turned away a second-half rally by the Tritons (7-7, 4-3).

    TAMPA 51, FLA. SOUTHERN 31: Moriah Hodge had 14 points and seven rebounds for the visiting Spartans (12-3, 3-3 SSC).

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    Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    CORAL GABLES — With a steady din coming from the sea of orange behind the visitors' basket, No. 1 Duke had a tough time making a shot.

    The Blue Devils went more than eight minutes without a field goal in the first half Wednesday night, and a sellout became a blowout for No. 25 Miami, which delighted a boisterous crowd with a 90-63 victory.

    The Hurricanes (14-3, 5-0 ACC) beat a No. 1 team for the first time, taking control with a stunning 25-1 run midway through the first half. The Blue Devils missed 13 consecutive shots, while four Hurricanes hit 3-pointers during the run that transformed a 14-13 deficit into a 38-15 lead.

    Miami had been 0-6 against No. 1 teams. Coach Jim Larranaga also beat a No. 1 team for the first time.

    "This is a great memory," Larranaga said.

    Duke (16-2, 3-2) had regained the top spot this week but seemed rattled by the capacity crowd of 7,972, the 10th in 10 years at Miami's on-campus arena. Students began lining up outside the arena almost 24 hours before tipoff, a rarity for the attendance-challenged Hurricanes.

    "I don't know how you can sit outside for a basketball game for that long," Miami guard Durand Scott said. "That made me want to win for them even more."

    Duke's defeat was the third-worst ever for a No. 1 team. The last time it lost a regular-season game by a bigger margin was in January 1984.

    "It wasn't demoralizing; they played better," Blue Devils guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. "I believe we have them on the schedule again."

    "We expected them to be terrific, and we have to match terrific, and then you have a terrific game," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "What you had was a terrific win for them, but not a terrific game. We didn't hold our end of the bargain."

    Scott scored a season-high 25 for the Hurricanes, who are alone atop the league standings and won their sixth straight. They beat Duke for the second straight time but only the fourth time in the 19-game series.

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  • 01/23/13--20:08: Li rips Sharapova in semi
  • Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    MELBOURNE, Australia — Li Na used the heat to her advantage, working No. 2-seeded Maria Sharapova around Rod Laver Arena in a 6-2, 6-2 win today that put her in the Australian Open final for the second time in three years.

    Li, 30, the No. 6 seed, was the first Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final when she lost to Kim Clijsters in Melbourne in 2011. She had her breakthrough a few months later when she won the French Open, beating Sharapova in the semifinals along the way.

    Li improved to 13-1 this year. Her only loss came to No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, who met No. 29 Sloane Stephens in the other semifinal in a match that was not over at press time.

    Sharapova, 25, was the heavy favorite after conceding only nine games in her first five matches, a record at the Australian Open since it expanded to a 128-player field in 1988.

    But the semifinal, played in temperatures that reached 93 degrees, started badly for the 25-year-old Russia. She served double faults to lose the first two points and conceding a break in the first game.

    Li, who had the backing of the crowd that waved red and white Chinese flags, won the final four games of the second set, breaking twice, to take the match.

    Murray rolls into semis, Federer grinds it out

    They have been playing two different tournaments: Andy Murray in the sunshine and Roger Federer under the lights. But the schedules will be harmonized on Friday when they meet in the semifinals.

    Federer, the No. 2 seed, had to work a lot harder and a lot longer Wednesday.

    After Murray, the No. 3 seed, routed unseeded Jeremy Chardy, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, Federer had to play 3 hours, 34 minutes to oust Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 3-6, 6-3.

    No. 1 Novak Djokovic met No. 4 David Ferrer in the other semifinal today.

    Federer broke the No. 7 seed in the fourth game of the deciding set. He then converted his fifth match point while serving after Tsonga saved four match points in the previous game.

    "I love those four-set or five-set thrillers," Federer said.

    Murray, 25, was broken while serving for the match (only the second time in the tournament he was broken). But he broke back immediately to win it.

    "I can't be disappointed about being in the semis of a slam without dropping a set," Murray said. "That would be silly."

    After years of chasing the game's major prizes without success, Murray beat Federer for the Olympic gold medal last year and soon after took the U.S. Open.

    Murray leads 10-9 overall in matches with Federer but has not beat him in a Grand Slam event — even if the Olympic final was played at Wimbledon.

    Federer said he doesn't think about his Grand Slam edge over Murray, which includes victories in the 2008 U.S. Open final, the 2010 Australia Open final and last year's Wimbledon final.

    "He has beaten me so many times. He's beaten me more times than I've beaten him," Federer said. "But I'm happy you've given me the positive news. Good vibe. I'll try to remember that when I walk out, but it doesn't play a huge role for me."

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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    Times wires
    Wednesday, January 23, 2013

    ATHENS, Ga. — Scottie Wilbekin helped No. 8 Florida get through a sluggish first half.

    His teammates took it from there.

    Wilbekin matched a career high with 17 points, 13 before halftime, and the Gators romped past another Southeastern Conference opponent, beating Georgia 64-47 Wednesday night.

    Florida (15-2, 5-0 SEC) trailed 27-24 at halftime after making just 1 of 9 3-pointers. But the Gators quickly turned things around as Wilbekin and Mike Rosario hit consecutive 3s and forced Georgia into three straight turnovers.

    The Gators led the rest of way, holding Georgia (7-11, 1-4) to one field goal in the first 11½ minutes of the second half.

    "My shots were falling," Wilbekin said. "They were opening up the lane. I was able to drive in the first half. They made it easy for me."

    Everyone else was struggling, but the Gators looked more familiar in the second half. UF sank 7 of 11 3-pointers and turned up the defensive pressure, limiting Georgia to 32 percent (6-of-19) from the field. The Bulldogs finished with 17 turnovers to only seven for Florida.

    "We knew it was going to be a grind-it-out, physical game," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "They were not going to get in a running game with us. They were going to run some clock. They forced us to dig a little deeper."

    Despite never leading in the first half, Florida added to its run of dominance in conference play. The Gators have won their first five SEC games by an average of nearly 25 points.

    Wilbekin, who was averaging 8.3 points, equaled his career best from a November victory over Central Florida. Kenny Boynton added 14 points and Erik Murphy had 13.

    "Scottie and the Georgia turnovers kept us close," Donovan said. "We could've been down 10 or 12. To only be down by three at the half, we were fortunate."

    Florida already had beaten Georgia 77-44 two weeks ago in Gainesville, but the Bulldogs were more competitive in this one, at least for a half. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the home team with 16 points.

    No other Georgia player was in double figures.

    "A tale of two halves," Bulldogs coach Mark Fox said. "We didn't start the second half well at all. We just couldn't stabilize our defense in the second half. We just couldn't find a way to get stops in the second half, and they shot the ball very well."

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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    By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays apparently decided to stick with who they know, agreeing to re-sign designated hitter Luke Scott and reliever Kyle Farns­worth in deals expected to be completed next week.

    In seeking to upgrade a lineup that lost the combined 47 homers hit by B.J. Upton and Carlos Peña, the Rays chose to bring back Scott, banking on increased production in his second season after shoulder surgery.

    Scott, 34, hit .229 (including a team-record 0-for-41 streak) with 14 homers, 55 RBIs and a .724 on-base plus slugging percentage last season, limited to 96 games due to oblique and back injuries.

    Terms were not available, but it should be for less than $5 million because the Rays previously declined Scott's $6 million option and paid him a $1 million buyout.

    Though the Rays seemed to be exploring other options, they had maintained interest in and contact with Scott.

    Other candidates still on the market after Delmon Young signed with the Phillies this week included Travis Hafner, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Lee, Juan Rivera and Jim Thome. Dan Johnson, a former Ray, took a minor-league deal with the Yankees on Thursday.

    With Scott back, the Rays could still look to add another bat, either an outfielder or a right-handed hitting first baseman/DH. As they sit now, Ben Zobrist looks to be the primary rightfielder with Desmond Jennings in center, Matt Joyce (and others) in left and Ryan Roberts and/or Sean Rodriguez at second.

    Farnsworth, 36, spent the past two seasons in the Rays bullpen, the follow-up to his sterling 2011 season (5-1, 2.18 ERA, 25 saves) cut in half due to an elbow strain diagnosed at the end of spring training. He returned June 30 and went 1-6 with a 4.00 ERA in 34 appearances.

    He agreed to a one-year deal for a salary close to $1.5 million with the chance to earn up to another $1.5 million in incentives.

    The deals might not be announced until next week because both players (who have injury histories) have to take physicals and the team has to create 40-man roster space.

    Minor-leagues: The Rays kept their minor-league coaching staff relatively intact but shuffled mangers among their lower-level affiliates. They moved Brady Williams from Class A Bowling Green to advanced Class A Charlotte, Jared Sandberg from short-season Class A Hudson Valley to Bowling Green and Michael Johns from rookie-league Prince­ton to Hudson Valley. Jim Morrison goes from Charlotte to the Gulf Coast League team. Also, Paul Hoover went from GCL manager to catching coordinator, and Danny Sheaffer was hired at Princeton. For the full list, see tampabay.com/blogs/rays.

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    By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 24, 2013


    It's just stuff, really. Baseball jerseys, photos and newspaper pages tucked under glass. Silly-looking plastic figurines jammed into a few boxes. Dirty baseballs and scribbled-on scorecards. • A half-dozen empty champagne bottles. But as James Shields goes through the unexpected and uncomfortable process of packing up to leave the Tampa Bay area after spending the past dozen years in the Rays organization, he stops occasionally to muse that it's so much more — the remnants of the only life he has ever known. • "There's a lot of memories, so many memories, good memories," Shields said. "There's just a lot of stuff. It's amazing to sit here and think about how many years and how many things I've done. It's awesome."

    Sad a bit, too. Amid the obligatory excitement Shields shares about joining the Royals thanks to the December trade, he admits there is pain in leaving, especially of someone else's volition.

    "It's just bittersweet for me," he said.

    "I've been in this organization for 12 years. I've formed a family here. That's the sad part about it. All the way down to Vinny (the Tropicana Field guard) in the parking lot. I've known a lot of people for a long time."

    Shields was 18 and fresh out of a California high school when he showed up for his first instructional league camp. So while he has grown from a 16th-round draft pick to an All-Star and an ace, he also has grown up in the Tampa Bay area.

    He and his wife, Ryane, bought their first house here, sent their oldest daughter to school here, had their second daughter here.

    They also got heavily involved in charitable causes here, specifically to help foster children and the adoptive process, forming the Big Game James Club (which he said will remain in place at the Trop).

    A move is hectic for any family with young kids, including a pro ball player with a $10 million salary. They've been packing for weeks, planning to sell the Clearwater house they had built four years ago and move to a new home base near San Diego, then figure out where James will live during spring training in Arizona and eventually get a house to rent for the season in Kansas City.

    So when James, now 31, and Ryane took a break the other night, all they wanted was a quick bite at Carrabba's — but came home with much more.

    "We had people passing us notes like we were in high school again," he said. "They didn't want to bother me at dinner, but they said they were going to miss me and that I've done a lot in this community.

    "I think that's great. That's the stuff I'm going to miss. A lot of people say, 'Yeah, you did a great job. You're doing great with the team.' But what I'm most proud of is that a lot of people are going to miss me in the community and some of the things I've done."

    Pitching in

    The on-field accomplishments were pretty good, too. Shields leaves as the Rays' all-time leader with 87 wins (and 73 losses), 1,452⅔ innings, 1,250 strikeouts, 217 starts and 19 complete games, and he struck out a team-record 15 in his last game in a Tampa Bay uniform.

    He won the first playoff game in franchise history and has the only World Series victory. He enjoyed being one of the few players (along with Ben Zobrist and also-departed B.J. Upton and J.P. Howell) to survive wearing the green of the miserable Devil Rays days to be part of all of the recent success. He relished his role as the leader of a talented staff.

    His legacy?

    "I don't know," Shields said. "When I come back (with the Royals) in June, you never know, but I would hope I wouldn't get any boos. I guess my legacy, I feel like I've done a lot for this organization. I feel like I put my heart and soul into every single game. And I also put my heart and soul into the community."

    Memory lane

    Among Shields' prized possessions are his jerseys from the 2008 World Series and 2011 All-Star Game, balls from his first win and other milestone achievements, the Times front page showing him atop the '08 pennant-clinching celebration, a bottle from each champagne celebration, and, he figures, "every single giveaway the Rays have done since I've been here."

    He has some stories, too.

    Like his first day as a pro, after signing for $262,000, heading to the instructional league on a flight to Tampa so turbulent that passengers were told to brace with their heads between their knees, Shields wondering if he'd even make it.

    Like seeking and not getting his release — thankfully, he admits now — in an April 2005 test of wills when then-farm director Cam Bonifay told him they didn't have a spot for him on any of their minor-league teams so he'd have to stay in extended spring.

    Like the massive nervousness that overcame him on the eve of his long-awaited big-league debut in May 2006, how he couldn't sleep or eat and didn't know what was going on as he took the mound.

    Like the residuals of the brawl he instigated with the Red Sox in June 2008 by admittedly throwing at Coco Crisp (in retaliation for a hard slide the previous night), then throwing a punch at the Boston outfielder when he charged the mound.

    "I believe that was a huge turning point in how successful we were the last five years," Shields said. "We didn't take anything from anybody any longer. We didn't let anybody step on our face anymore."

    Like the anxiety of the 2008 American League Championship Series with Boston, which he considers both the best and most nerve-wracking game he has been a part of.

    Moving on

    The Royals and Rays meet in Kansas City at the end of April and at the Trop in mid June, and Shields hopes it lines up for him to pitch, promising he won't try to claim it's just another game: "I'd go on record and say it right now — I want to beat them every time I play them."

    He has already swapped texts with David Price and Evan Longoria (as well as Upton, whom he'll face in Atlanta), and he knows the volume will escalate as the series approach.

    As exciting as the opportunity might be in Kansas City, where Shields is projected to be the opening day starter and expected to lead the Royals to the postseason for the first time since 1985, he knows a part of him always will be a Ray. And he wants to thank the team for giving him the opportunity, the staff for giving him the help he needed, and the fans for giving him the respect and admiration.

    "It's a family," he said. "It's just family to me."

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

    Courtesy of Ryane ShieldsCourtesy of Ryane Shields

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    By Damian Cristodero, Times Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    The thing Cory Conacher enjoys most about that YouTube video that extols the virtues of the honey badger is the animal is portrayed as such a relentlessly fierce beast.

    "A honey badger kind of does whatever it wants," Conacher said. "It's a gritty creature."

    In other words, the Lightning's rookie left wing embraces the nickname given him last season at AHL Norfolk.

    "Definitely a compliment," said Jon Cooper, Conacher's coach with the Admirals. "If you ever watch the video, the honey badger takes what it wants."

    And that is Conacher, 23, whose goal was to play in the NHL and who (in fewer than two years) has gone from college star to minor-league sensation to a player some believe could compete for rookie of the year.

    Conacher's five points, on two goals and three assists, entered Thursday tied for the league lead among first-year players and tied for second among all players.

    He not only is getting power-play time, he is on a line with Vinny Lecavalier and getting spot duty with Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis.

    "A dream start," the former undrafted free agent said.

    "Playing with guys you idolized your whole hockey career is pretty amazing. I'll probably tear up in the summer when I actually realize I played in the NHL."

    There is no reason to believe Conacher's start is a fluke.

    The Burlington, Ontario, native — he is a distant relative of NHL Hall of Famers Charlie, Roy and Lionel Conacher — has a sense for being in the right place at the right time. During Tuesday's 4-1 victory over the Hurricanes, he followed Lecavalier to the net and scored on a rebound.

    He is fast, too, and coach Guy Boucher said Conacher, averaging 14:41 of ice time, actually has led Stamkos and St. Louis on the rush.

    "He pushes the pace for them," Boucher said. "That's hard to do."

    Most important, though, is how quickly Conacher reads plays and reacts. During Monday's 4-3 loss to the Islanders, his perfect pass to Stamkos in front of the net was so quick and precise, it left no time for the defense or goalie to react before Stamkos scored.

    "I even do a little visualization before the game," Conacher said. "I visualize certain circumstances on the ice so if they do happen, I'm ready for it. I've already gone through my head what is the right play to make."

    "The kid has unbelievable instincts," said Cooper, now coaching AHL Syracuse, the Lightning's new affiliate. "It's crazy. I don't know how to describe it. He can make passes through opponents that are impossible. That's why we call him 'Honey Badger.' He can adapt to what's going on and play at a high rate of speed."

    And he does it despite being a Type I diabetic and an undersized — by NHL standards — 5 feet 8, 179 pounds.

    Conacher's lack of size certainly contributed to him being undrafted. His skills never were an issue.

    As a Canisius College junior, Conacher, with 20 goals and 53 points, was the Atlantic Hockey Association's 2009-10 player of the year. In 2011-12, after finishing school and being signed by the Lightning the previous July, Conacher, with 39 goals and 80 points, was AHL rookie of the year and MVP.

    "He's such a smart player," Lecavalier said. "He skates hard. He skates in the corners. He does the little things right, and it's paying off for him."

    With a honey of a nickname.

    Getty ImagesGetty Images

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    Times staff, wires
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    TALLAHASSEE — Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley is leaving his alma mater for the same job at Miami, where he gets a raise and will call the plays.

    Coley, 39, is the sixth Seminole assistant leaving Jimbo Fisher's staff since the end of the season along with the school's football publicist. Fisher's remaining assistants are holdovers from former coach Bobby Bowden's staff: former Seminole players Lawrence Dawsey and Odell Haggins, and offensive line coach Rick Trickett.

    Coley was the lead recruiter of the South Florida area for FSU, so his hiring could be a boon for UM two weeks before national signing day. He spent the past three seasons as FSU's offensive coordinator but in a name-only capacity. He helped set the weekly game plans and sat in the press box while Fisher executed the full play-calling duties.

    Coley, who will also coach the quarterbacks, reportedly will make $500,000 at UM after making $335,500 at FSU. A 1997 FSU graduate, he grew so close to the old Orange Bowl that fans used to park on his lawn while attending Hurricanes and Dolphins games.

    um investigation: The Miami-based attorney at the center of the latest developments in UM's NCAA investigation said she did nothing wrong. Maria Elena Perez, who represents former Hurricane booster Nevin Shapiro, said she's the NCAA's "patsy" as the governing body launches an internal probe into its Miami investigation. On Wednesday, NCAA president Mark Emmert said there were major issues with the investigation into recruiting and compliance based on actions taken by a member of its enforcement staff and Shapiro's attorney. One question: How testimony was obtained during Shapiro's bankruptcy depositions. Perez said she did not work in collusion with NCAA investigators: "Everything I did was above board."

    UCF APPEAL: The Knights presented their case to have a one-year postseason ban in football overturned. There is no timetable to receive a ruling. It is the lone penalty UCF challenged as part of sanctions levied in July for major recruiting violations in football and basketball.

    Ex-Gator: Sophomore defensive back De'Ante "Pop" Saunders said he has enrolled at Division I-AA Tennessee State after transferring from Florida.

    LSU: Coach Les Miles gets an annual increase of $549,000 a year, to $4.3 million, in an extension through 2019 that was announced last month.

    Purdue: John Shoop reportedly will be named offensive coordinator. He was out of coaching last year after five seasons as North Carolina's coordinator. Shoop was Bucs quarterbacks coach in 2004.

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    By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    Big Game's biggest games

    James Shields picks his five biggest games while playing for Tampa Bay.

    1. 2008 World Series, Game 2, vs. Phillies

    5⅔ innings, 7 hits, 0 runs, 2 walks, 4 strikeouts, 104 pitches, Win

    Shields has pitched much better games, but he felt he never pitched a bigger game — the only World Series game the Rays have ever won. "I don't think you can get any better than that," he said. "Maybe winning the World Series-winning game? But as a kid growing up, you always dream about being in the World Series. And the fact that I'm 1-0 in the World Series, that's pretty special to me."

    2. First career win, vs. Angels, June 5, 2006

    6 innings, 7 hits, 0 runs, 2 walks, 6 strikeouts, 108 pitches, Win

    Admittedly nervous in his big-league debut five days earlier at Baltimore (five runs over five innings in a no-decision), Shields was much calmer and more effective in his first Trop start. Making it better, he beat his hometown Angels and then-ace Jeff Weaver. "That was pretty special to me," he said.

    3. Rays finale, vs. Baltimore, Oct. 2, 2012

    9 innings, 2 hits, 1 run, 15 strikeouts, 106 pitches, Loss

    Shields' last game as a Ray was, arguably, his most impressive, though with one staggering exception — he lost 1-0 at the Trop by allowing a fourth-inning homer to Chris Davis. "That's one of the best games I've ever pitched," he said. "It might not be the impressive one like No. 1, but it's probably No. 3 for sure."

    4. 2008 ALDS opener, vs. White Sox

    6⅓ innings, 6 hits, 3 runs, 1 walk, 4 strikeouts, 100 pitches, Win

    Shields again felt the setting was more important than the statistics as he got to pitch (and won) the first playoff game in franchise history. "I grew up in this organization," he said. "And to see us go from 100 losses a year and never have a winning season and now all of a sudden I'm pitching the first playoff game in Rays history, that to me was so cool."

    5. First shutout, vs. Red Sox, April 27, 2008

    9 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, 1 walk, 7 strikeouts, 99 pitches, Win

    Shields wants every game to be a shutout. And he remains proud today of the first of his eight, even more so than his one-hitter against the Angels two starts later (a 2-0 win). "I want to include that one for sure," he said.

    Marc Topkin, Times staff writer

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    Times wires
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    SAN DIEGO — Brandt Snedeker ended another round at Torrey Pines atop the leaderboard. Only this time, he had company and still a long way to go.

    Snedeker had a flawless start to his title defense in the Farmers Insurance Open by playing bogey-free on the North Course for 7-under 65 and a share of the lead with K.J. Choi on Thursday. The advantage after one day goes to Choi, who birdied three of his last four holes on the tougher South Course.

    Tiger Woods, a seven-time champion at Torrey Pines as a pro, looked as if he might join them. Woods was one back with five to play on the South until he stumbled in the final hour of a cloudy day with two bogeys and had to scramble to save par on the par-5 18th for 68.

    "I made a few mistakes out there, but I made some nice plays as well," Woods said.

    He three-putted for double bogey on the fourth hole then responded with a 12-footer for birdie, an eagle by holing a bunker shot on the par-5 sixth and birdie putts on the eighth and ninth to get back into the game.

    Phil Mickelson had quite the taxing day with 72 on the North, which played about 1½ strokes easier than the course that hosted a U.S. Open in 2008.

    Snedeker already is developing a love affair with this municipal course along the Pacific Bluffs. As a rookie, he was 10 under through 10 holes and had to settle for 61 on the North. He finished third that year. Then he rallied from seven shots behind in the final round last year, got into a playoff when Kyle Stanley made triple bogey on 18 and won on the second hole.

    One year later, he was right back at it.

    "It's funny. You look at all the golf courses I should play well on, this should not be one of them," Snedeker said.

    Masters champion Bubba Watson withdrew because of a stomach illness.

    PGA Europe: Sergio Garcia (6-under 66) and Martin Kaymer (67) were among four tied for the second-round lead at 9-under 135 at the Qatar Masters in Doha.

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    By Jay Mastry, Times Correspondent
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    What's hot: On our most recent trip, we caught 30 mangrove snapper, gag and red grouper, a couple of porgies and triggerfish. Fishing in 47 feet 13 miles southwest out of Pass-a-Grille, particles escaping our chum bag eventually raised the mangrove snapper to the surface. Most were caught bouncing the bottom with 20-pound test, 2-ounce egg sinker, 1/0 hook and frisky 3-inch whitebait. Many, though, were caught on fly-lined chunks of bait drifted in our chum line on light-spinning tackle.

    Tips: Raising mangrove snapper and getting them to eat are two different things. In low light, such as early morning or slightly muddied water, they can be fooled into taking offerings presented naturally. When the sun is overhead or the water is clear, it can be nearly impossible to entice them.

    Tackle: When chunking, lighter is better. Both 10- and 12-pound test with a small, lightweight hook will appear more natural when drifting in the chum line. Leave the bail open or pull out enough slack to allow the baited hook to keep pace with the chum pieces. If the snapper are finicky, try bypassing a swivel with a line-to-line knot.

    Jay Mastry charters Jaybird out of St. Petersburg. Call (727) 321-2142.

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  • 01/24/13--18:26: Outdoors news and notes
  • By Terry Tomalin, Times Outdoors-Fitness Editor
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    Young sailor wins

    Addison Hackstaff, 16, of St. Petersburg took top honors at last weekend's ISAF youth world qualifier at the Clearwater Yacht Club. Hackstaff won two of the nine races, besting 52 Laser Radial sailors for the chance to race in the world championships July 13-20 in Limassol, Cypress. Hackstaff, U.S. Sailing's Chubb single-handed champion and Sunfish junior world champ, also qualified for the Snipe class junior world championship Sept. 14-20 in Rio.

    Fishing class

    Dave Zalewski, who has worked local waters for more than 50 years, will share his secrets during a six-week course starting Feb. 13 at the Madeira Beach City Marina, 503 150th Ave. The class meets Wednesdays from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Topics include tackle, electronics, bottom fishing, trolling, artificial reefs and cleaning and cooking. It costs $50. For details, call (727) 397-8815 or email luckytoo2@aol.com.

    'Shark Girl'

    Do sharks sleep? Why don't they get cancer? Get the answers to these and other questions tonight when Hannah "Shark Girl" Fizell presents an evening with sharks at Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure, 9501 U.S. 19, Pinellas Park. The lecture starts at 6 p.m. Reservations are required. Call (727) 576-4169.

    Good Old Boats

    New is out and old is in. If you like classic watercraft, check out some of the Tampa Bay's coolest sailboats when the St. Petersburg Sailing Association presents the fourth annual Good Old Boat Regatta on Saturday at the St. Petersburg Pier. Racing starts at 11 a.m. If your boat is at least 20 years old, then you can set sail with other old-school skippers. While the event does have some hard-core racers, there are also awards for the prettiest boat, oldest boat and oldest skipper. For information, email race.committee.chair@spsa.us or go to spsa.us/wp.

    Compiled by Terry Tomalin. Send your news and notes to tomalin@tampabay.com or call (727) 893-8808

    Solunar chart

    AM PM

    Minor Major Minor Major

    1/25 5:0312:304:0410:30

    1/26 5:3412:414:4411:03

    1/27 5:15 11:20 5:30 11:45

    1/28 6:00 0 6:25 12:15

    1/29 6:50 12:40 7:20 1:05

    1/30 7:40 1:30 8:10 1:55

    1/31 8:30 2:20 9:00 2:45

    0 0

    By Terry Tomalin, Times Outdoors-Fitness Editor
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    EVERGLADES — Dave Markett has seen his share of dangerous reptiles: rattlers, moccasins, even the shy coral snake.

    But out here in the middle of the swamp, he was hard-pressed to find a python.

    "I know they are out here," the veteran gator hunter said. "But they are masters of camouflage. We could probably step right next to one and never see it."

    Four hours into our Burmese python hunt, we had burned more than 40 gallons of aviation fuel, covered countless miles of sawgrass and inspected nearly 100 "tree islands."

    And found nothing.

    "That is the crazy part," said Markett, a Tampa native who has been hunting and fishing Florida's wild lands for more than 50 years. "We haven't even seen a banded water snake.

    "Where are all the critters?"

    The Burmese python, a top-tier predator that can grow to 20 feet, has been blamed for wiping out more than 90 percent of the mammals in the Everglades.

    The national park, which lies south of U.S. 41, was off-limits to the 1,355 hunters participating in the "Python Challenge" put on by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in hopes of stopping the advance of these exotic marauders.

    The hunt began Jan. 12 and ends at 11:59 p.m. Feb. 10. The state will pay $1,000 to the hunter who bags the longest python and $1,500 to the hunter who kills the most.

    It costs $25 to enter, and all I had to do was take a half-hour class online and read the rules and regulations before being granted a permit.

    However, as of Tuesday (the most recent update provided by the commission), only 27 snakes had been caught despite 50 permits being issued.

    So on a cool Tuesday morning this week, I found myself at a boat ramp in the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area at the east end of I-75 with a few other hunters.

    But as soon as we hit the water through the rest of the day, we found ourselves alone in the River of Grass.

    Our plan was simple: head south toward Everglades National Park and stop at every piece of dry land in between no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

    "These snakes will look for any piece of dry land to sun themselves when it is cold," Markett said. "If they are here, that is where they will be."

    For some reason, I thought python hunting would be easy. My only previous experience with reptiles was with alligators. They are pretty skittish, especially during hunting season.

    Markett, a hunting and fishing guide, knows his business. If anybody was going to find a Burmese python in this watery wilderness, it was this white-haired airboat aficionado.

    "Years ago, I came across one sunning itself on a levee," he said. "It probably ran about 8 feet. But I think you will find (ones) bigger than that."

    State wildlife officials said there are thousands of these snakes — some more than 17 feet but most between 6 and 9 feet — living in South Florida. An invasive species, some were released accidentally into the wild. Others were simply let go by irresponsible pet owners who didn't want to care for the animals once they got too big.

    Native to India, China and the Malay Peninsula, pythons can grow to 26 feet and weigh more than 200 pounds, making them the undisputed heavyweight champion of the food chain. A famous picture of an alligator and python locked in a battle-to-the-death circulated several years ago.

    About six hours into our hunt — still snakeless — we changed tactics and began patrolling the sunny shoreline of a roadside canal. We got surprised by several large alligators trying to absorb what little warmth they could from the afternoon sun.

    Then Markett, the swamp rat, made an insightful observation: "All we're seeing is big gators. Where are all the little ones?"

    Maybe these snakes are eating more than raccoons and bobcats.

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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    Times wires
    Thursday, January 24, 2013

    MELBOURNE, Australia — Victoria Azarenka has 48 hours to calm her nerves, rest her body and move past a controversy before going for her second straight Australian Open title.

    Azarenka advanced Thursday in straight sets, 6-1, 6-4 over American teen Sloane Stephens. In Saturday's final, Azarenka faces No. 6 Li Na, who routed No. 2 Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-2.

    But Azarenka's semifinal victory was packed with drama and ended with the top seed defending herself against an accusation of gamesmanship.

    Serving at 5-3, Azarenka failed to convert five match points before being broken. She then called a timeout, sat with a trainer and left the court for nine minutes. She returned and broke Stephens to win. But she raised suspicion during two interviews on center court.

    "I almost did the choke of the year," she said to fans. "I just felt a little bit overwhelmed. I realized I'm one step away from the final, and nerves got into me. I love to play here, and I just couldn't lose. That's why I was so upset."

    Then came a TV interview.

    "I couldn't breathe. I had chest pains," Azarenka said on why she left. "It was like I was getting a heart attack."

    During the Belarusian's news conference more than an hour after the match, she felt the need to explain the TV comments.

    "I think I just really misunderstood what he asked me because the question was I had few difficulties (in the match) and why I went off," Azarenka said. "I completely thought of a different thing; why I couldn't close out the match; that I had a few difficulties (medically)."

    Australian Open officials said the tournament doctor reported Azarenka had left knee and rib injuries.

    "Right now, I just need to calm down … make sure that my body's right," she said.

    Pressed again to explain her TV comments, Azarenka said: "I did say that. I did say I couldn't breathe."

    Stephens, whose quarterfinal victory was interrupted by Serena Williams' medical timeout, downplayed allegations of gamesmanship, saying the break didn't affect the outcome.

    "I've had people going for medical breaks, going to the bathroom," said Stephens, who will move to No. 17 from No. 29 in the rankings. "Just something else that happens."

    'Perfect' Djokovic cruises into final

    Two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic conducted a clinic, routing No. 4 David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in Thursday's semifinal.

    "I played perfectly," said the top seed, who faces the winner of today's match between No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 3 Andy Murray (not over at press time). "This is … one of the best performances I ever had in my career."

    Djokovic needed 5 hours, 2 minutes to beat Stanislaw Wawrinka, then lost a set against Tomas Berdych in the quarters. But against Ferrer, he converted all seven break-point chances while not facing any.

    Ferrer double faulted to set up match point.

    "I prefer to play worse in a semifinal than in the first round," Ferrer said. "Of course, I am not happy with my game (today), but this is tennis."

    Associated PressAssociated Press

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