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Florida had not been to the Final Four since all those future first-round draft picks were in Gainesville. Wisconsin and coach Bo Ryan had never been.

Connecticut wasn't allowed to play in the NCAA tournament a year ago, and Kentucky supposedly had no shot at getting to North Texas after a midseason swoon.

Unlike the past few years, there will be no upstarts or Cinderella in the Final Four.

These are the big boys all right, but each one has a big chip on their shoulders.

"In down times, what you do is you bond together as brothers," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "And you hold that fist up."

Billy Donovan won a pair of national titles at Florida with Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford, all top-10 NBA picks in the 2007 NBA draft. After that second title, he accepted the head coaching job with the NBA's Orlando Magic, then changed his mind after the introductory news conference.

Donovan continued to produce winning teams in Gainesville, but the biggest wins eluded the Gators. They lost in the regional final each of the past three seasons.

That changed when the ferocious Gators (36-2) rode their chomping defense through a 30-game winning streak capped by Saturday's 62-52 win over bracket darling Dayton.

"We didn't start off the exact way that we should have, but coach Donovan continued to remind us and humble us and help us see that, in order to get where we want to get to, the end goal, we have to continue to chase greatness every single day and stay in the moment," Florida forward Patric Young said.

To win another title, the Gators will have to go through the last two teams to beat them this season (UConn and Wisconsin) or their biggest SEC rival (Kentucky).

The Huskies won the 2011 national title with coach Jim Calhoun and one-man show Kemba Walker.

Things went sour in Storrs after that. Calhoun retired in 2012 and UConn was barred from the NCAA tournament last season for failing to meet the NCAA's academic progress measure.

UConn's upperclassmen decided to stick it out instead of transferring and put together another magical bracket run behind another do-it-all-player, former Walker understudy Shabazz Napier. With their 60-54 win over Michigan State on Sunday, the Huskies (30-8) became the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

UConn beat Florida 65-64 way back on Dec. 2, the Gators' last loss this season.

"We play a great Florida team and we're going to be well prepared, because I know about these guys' heart, and that's what got us through," Ollie said.

Then there's Bo.

Wisconsin's tell-it-like-it-is coach had been a regular at the Final Four, taking his father, Butch, to every one since 1976 as a birthday gift.

Bo had a hard time getting there with his team, though, winning over 700 games, playing in the NCAA tournament 13 straight years and reaching the Sweet 16 six times - and not one trip to the Final Four.

Bo and the Badgers (30-7) get their chance now after pulling out an emotional 64-63 win over top-seeded Arizona in the West Regional final on Saturday, which would have been Butch Ryan's 90th birthday.

"I can remember some of the great teams that he had of kids and their first championships and how they acted and just the joy," Ryan said. "These guys have had some others, but that's all I wanted to see."

Rounding out this foursome could be the most fearsome bunch of the bracket.

Kentucky won the 2012 national championship behind coach John Calipari's get-the-best-players-no-matter-how-long-they-stay philosophy. Cal brought in another heralded group of one-and-doners and they were touted as the team to beat, ranked No. 1 in the preseason.

After a string of losses, including three in five games, the kid Cats were out of the polls and supposedly out of contention.

Well, look at them now.

Showcasing their talent and depth, the Wildcats (28-10) are playing with a cohesiveness and confidence that wasn't there earlier in the season, racing into the Final Four after pulling out a last-second victory over Michigan.

"I can't believe it; we went through so much," said Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, who hit a 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left in the 75-72 win over the Wolverines. "We went through a lot of ups and downs, and we're blessed to be going to the Final Four."

They are not alone.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

Monday, 31 March 2014 07:30
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After a brutal winter of arctic blasts and blustery snowstorms, baseball is ready to heat up Monday with its first full slate of games this season.

David Ortiz and the World Series champion Boston Red Sox begin their title defense in Baltimore against home run king Chris Davis and the AL East rival Orioles. Robinson Cano makes his Seattle Mariners debut, looking to live up to a huge contract - just like Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout.

Behind the scenes, umpires at all six replay stations in New York will be at the ready for the first time in baseball history.

"We recognize fully that last year is behind us, and everyone is looking forward to (Monday) and beyond," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

The start of Derek Jeter's retirement tour will wait one more day. The New York Yankees, with baseball's oldest roster, will face the youngest on Tuesday night in Houston.

By the time Detroit's Justin Verlander throws a pitch at 1:08 p.m. EDT in the first of 13 games Monday, the Dodgers will already have played openers on two continents and put $215 million ace Clayton Kershaw on the disabled list.

Los Angeles swept a pair Down Under from the Diamondbacks on March 22-23, with Kershaw winning the first regular-season major league game in Australia before an upper back muscle acted up. The Dodgers then played at San Diego in the North American opener Sunday night.

Still, ballparks around country will be buzzing with optimistic fans and, other than in Oakland, sunny skies and seasonably warm temperatures are expected to provide a wonderful backdrop - what a relief! - for the days' festivities.

"Should be a pretty good day for a ballgame," said Richard Bann, a meteorologist at the Weather Prediction Center.

The Pittsburgh Pirates certainly will be celebrating their first winning season and trip to the playoffs since 1992, and they'll have help handing out some hardware from two key members of that team: Barry Bonds and Jim Leyland.

Bonds, the `92 NL MVP, will be on hand to honor 2013 MVP Andrew McCutchen. The recently retired Leyland, a two-time Manager of the Year with Pittsburgh, is going to present Clint Hurdle with his Manager of the Year award for guiding the Pirates to a 94-68 record and wild-card berth.

The son of Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, who died in February, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Kiner will be honored in New York, too, where the Mets host Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals, a World Series favorite once again. Dillon Gee will make his first opening day start after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio throws out the ceremonial first pitch.

In Texas, Tanner Scheppers, a converted setup man, will be the first pitcher to make his first major league start in a season opener since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 for the Dodgers. Scheppers will have new slugger Prince Fielder at first base when the Rangers host Cliff Lee and the Philadelphia Phillies in an interleague game.

Scheppers got the nod because major league strikeout leader Yu Darvish is on the disabled list with a sore neck.

Atlanta's Kris Medlen, Oakland's Jarrod Parker and Arizona's Patrick Corbin are out, too. While Darvish may miss only one start, Medlen, Parker and Corbin are out for the season after having Tommy John surgery.

One pitcher who escaped serious injury is Reds closer Aroldis Chapman. He's sidelined at least a month more after being hit in the forehead by a line drive during spring training.

Not only will Cincinnati be without Chapman when it opens against NL Central rival St. Louis for just the second time in 20 years, the Reds have eight players on the DL - a major league high heading into the season. Texas is right behind with seven.

The Milwaukee Brewers get back star slugger Ryan Braun for their home opener against the Braves. Braun is returning from a 65-game suspension he accepted last season for his involvement in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal.

Braun will take his position on the lush new grass at Miller Park, a field grown under heat lamps imported from Europe because the winter temperatures in Wisconsin were too cold - even with the roof closed.

"But regardless of what Mother Nature gave us here, we're going to have it ready for opening day," said Michael Boettcher, the team's director of grounds.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

Monday, 31 March 2014 07:29
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   A couple of injuries mean there's room on the Cardinal's 25 man roster for a fan favorite.  Infielder Pete Kozma made the Opening Day squad after the team placed infielder Mark Ellis and pitchers Jaime Garcia and Jason Motte on the 15 day disabled list.  
   Ellis is out with tendinitis in his left knee.  His move is retroactive to March 27th.  The moves for both Garcia, who's still nursing his left shoulder, and Motte, out with a right elbow injury, are retroactive to March 21st.  The Cardinals announced the Opening Day roster Sunday.  
   The Cardinals will face Cincinnati in Monday's 2014 season opener at Great American Ballpark. Redbird ace Adam Wainwright will face Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto. First pitch is at 3:10 p.m.
 
*     *     *
 
The Cardinals 25-man Opening Day roster is as follows:
 
PITCHERS (12): Keith Butler-RHP, Randy Choate-LHP, Joe Kelly-RHP, Lance Lynn-RHP, Seth Maness-RHP, Carlos Martinez-RHP, Shelby Miller-RHP, Pat Neshek-RHP, Trevor Rosenthal-RHP, Kevin Siegrist-LHP, Michael Wacha-RHP, Adam Wainwright-RHP;
 
CATCHERS (2): Tony Cruz, Yadier Molina;
 
INFIELDERS (6): Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Jhonny Peralta, Kolten Wong;
 
OUTFIELDERS (5): Peter Bourjos, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson;
 
DISABLED LIST (3): Mark Ellis, Jaime Garcia, Jason Motte.
 
 
 
Monday, 31 March 2014 00:46
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JUPITER, Fla. (AP) -- Michael Wacha looked sharp in his final spring start Thursday, giving up a run in five innings of the St. Louis Cardinals' 6-4 loss to the Miami Marlins.
 
Wacha gave up four hits and struck out six. He is scheduled to start the Cardinals' second game of the season, on Tuesday at Cincinnati. He will start the home opener in St. Louis on April 7.
 
Wacha did struggle in the fifth. Derek Dietrich led off with a walk, advanced to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on Marcell Ozuna's single and scored on Brian Bogusevic's sacrifice fly to right.
 
"It got a little away from me in that last inning, but overall I was pretty happy with it," Wacha said.
 
Marlins infielder Ed Lucas broke his left hand when he was hit by a pitch. His injury should make room for Donovan Solano, who was sent to Triple-A New Orleans earlier in the day.
 
The Marlins won all six games against the Cardinals this spring. After losing 100 games last season, they finished 2014 Grapefruit League play at 18-11-2.
 
"It doesn't matter what it is, if it's a pickup game or a spring training game - winning is winning," Miami manager Mike Redmond said. "We all like to win. It feels good for everybody."
 
The Cardinals were 11-13-2.
 
STARTING TIME:
 
Cardinals: Shelby Miller will remain in Jupiter when the Cardinals head north on Friday. Miller will pitch in a minor league game on Saturday before rejoining the club. He is scheduled to start the Cardinals' fourth game of the season at Pittsburgh.
 
Marlins: Redmond named Tom Koehler as the club's fifth start, beating out Brad Hand, who will head to the bullpen. The Marlins will have a starting rotation of Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner and Koehler.
 
TRAINER'S ROOM
 
Cardinals: Reliever Jason Motte will face minor league hitters on Saturday. He is working his way back from elbow-ligament replacement surgery and could be ready for major league action by the end of April. ... Jaime Garcia is expected to throw another bullpen in the next couple days. No time frame has been set for his return.
 
Marlins: Though the team doesn't expect to make an official decision until Sunday, Redmond said he expects second baseman Rafael Furcal to begin the season on the disabled list. A sore hamstring has limited Furcal to 18 spring training at-bats.
 
MARLIN MOVES
 
Miami reassigned pitcher Henry Rodriguez to the minor leagues. Rodriguez, 5-7 with a 4.24 ERA in a five-year career that includes stints with Oakland, Washington and the Cubs, signed as a free agent in the offseason. Rodriguez has a clause in his contract allowing him to opt out of a minor league assignment. The 27-year-old righty struck out 14 and allowed six runs in nine Grapefruit League innings.
 
The Marlins also optioned outfielder Jake Marisnick to New Orleans. They reassigned pitcher Chris Hatcher, outfielder Matt Angle and infielders Juan Diaz and Austin Nola to the minor leagues.
 
SCORE THIS
 
The Cardinals employed a defensive shift against left-handed hitting Jarrod Saltalamacchia that moved third baseman Matt Carpenter into short right field, leaving shortstop Jhonny Peralta as the lone defender on the left side of the infield. Saltalamacchia hit the ball to the perfectly positioned Carpenter, who threw on to first for an unconventional 5-3 put out.
 
ATTENDANCE UP
 
The Cardinals averaged 6,733 fans for their 14 home games at Roger Dean Stadium, an increase of more than 500 fans per game from last season. It's the largest average attendance in the Grapefruit League for St. Louis since 2010. The Marlins averaged 4,532 fans - which is more than 300 per game more than last spring.
Thursday, 27 March 2014 23:24
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ST. LOUIS (AP) -- T.J. Oshie scored three goals for his first NHL hat trick and Ryan Miller made 27 saves to lead the St. Louis Blues to a 5-1 rout over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night.
 
St. Louis has won three in a row overall and nine straight against the Wild. The Blues lead the NHL with 107 points.
 
Minnesota has lost six of eight.
 
Jaden Schwartz and Brenden Morrow also scored for St. Louis, which has points in its last 10 home games. Miller improved to 9-2-1 since being acquired from Buffalo on Feb. 28.
 
Zach Parise scored for the Wild, who had earned points in their previous three road games. Darcy Kuemper made 19 saves but fell to 12-8-4. He has won just twice in his last nine starts.
 
Oshie, who has a career-high 21 goals, scored twice in the first period - including a short-handed goal with 26 seconds left that made it 2-0.
 
He converted from the slot at 4:43 and then beat Kuemper on a breakaway for the Blues' fifth short-handed goal of the season.
 
Oshie tipped in a shot from Jay Bouwmeester at 7:18 of the third period to complete the hat trick.
 
The Blues posted a hat trick for the second straight game as Oshie matched David Backes' three-goal feat in St. Louis' 5-3 win at Toronto on Tuesday.
 
Schwartz netted his 23rd goal of the season on a power play midway through the second period.
 
St. Louis has killed 23 straight power plays against Minnesota over six games.
 
NOTES: Steve Cash and Josh Pauls, members of the USA's gold-medal winning Paralympic hockey team, were honored before the game. ... Minnesota began a four-game trip that also has stops at Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago. ... The Blues, shooting for their first Presidents' Trophy since the 1999-2000 season, lead Boston by one point in the overall standings. Both teams have nine games remaining. ... Minnesota LW Dany Heatley has gone a season-high 13 games without a goal.
Thursday, 27 March 2014 23:23
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Wednesday, 26 March 2014 09:42
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TORONTO (AP) -- David Backes completed a hat trick with an empty-net goal to lead the St. Louis Blues to a 5-3 victory Tuesday night that sent the Toronto Maple Leafs to their sixth straight loss.
 
T.J. Oshie and former Leafs forward Alex Steen also scored for St. Louis, which passed Boston for the most points in the NHL with 105.
 
Ryan Miller made 21 saves to improve to 32-15-3 in his career against Toronto. The Blues have won 10 of 13 games since acquiring Miller and forward Steve Ott from Buffalo before the trade deadline.
 
Joffrey Lupul, Carl Gunnarsson and James van Riemsdyk scored for Toronto, which dropped out of a playoff spot for the first time since Jan. 14, coupled with Washington's shootout loss to Los Angeles.
 
The loss ruined the return of Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier, who made 44 saves in his first game since reinjuring his groin on March 13
 
Bernier helped withstand an early barrage before the Maple Leafs scored first in a game for the first time since March 10 at Anaheim - seven games and six losses ago.
 
With Brenden Morrow in the box for high-sticking, the Leafs' second power-play unit cashed in. After getting robbed by Miller at the side of the net, Nazem Kadri batted the puck out of the air and right to Lupul at the side of the net at 11:30 of the first period.
 
The Leafs' lead didn't last long, as Oshie tipped a shot from Roman Polak down and dived to knock the puck in at 15:55.
 
Had the Leafs been able to keep the score tied at 1 by the first intermission, they might've been able to make it a game. Instead, van Riemsdyk took an ill-advised interference penalty in the final minute to set up a memorable miscue by Phaneuf.
 
With a chance to send the puck down the ice on the penalty kill, Phaneuf wound up twice and held onto it just long enough for Oshie to poke it away. Seconds after the turnover, Backes beat Bernier clean with 32.3 seconds left.
 
The Blues' 23 first-period shots were the most the Leafs have given up this season.
 
Considering that, their second period was a strong improvement. Unlike the first, when they were hemmed in their own zone and needed Bernier to make big save after big save, the Leafs opened things up on the Blues and traded some chances.
 
They couldn't cash in, but the Blues did, as Backes scored his second of the night at 7:32 after a brilliant pass from Alex Pietrangelo.
 
At 17:35, St. Louis added the dagger when Steen beat Phaneuf in a net-front battle and then flipped a back-hand shot past Bernier for his 31st goal.
 
Down 4-1, Pietrangelo turned the puck over to Gunnarsson, who blasted a shot by Miller to cut the deficit to two.
 
Van Riemsdyk added a goal at 15:54 to make it 4-3, Backes' empty-netter sealed it for St. Louis.
 
NOTES: With Bernier back, the Leafs sent G Drew MacIntyre back to the AHL's Toronto Marlies. ... Defenseman Paul Ranger was scratched for the third straight game with a neck injury.
Tuesday, 25 March 2014 22:18
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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Neil Watson scored 18 points and Aaron Brown added 16 to help Southern Mississippi beat Missouri 71-63 in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament on Sunday.
 
Southern Mississippi (29-6) has won eight of its past nine games and will play at No. 1 seed Minnesota on Tuesday for the right to go to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
 
Jeremiah Eason's layup broke a 14-14 tie with 9:34 remaining in the first half and the Golden Eagles led the rest of the way. Missouri cut its deficit to three points on a 3-pointer by Earnest Ross with 14:41 left, but the Tigers could get no closer.
 
Ross scored 22 points while Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson both added 13 for Missouri (23-12), which fell to 2-8 all-time in NIT games.
Sunday, 23 March 2014 18:30
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PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma wants his high-powered team to get used to playing tight-checking playoff hockey before the postseason begins next month.
 
St. Louis doesn't need the lure of the playoffs as an excuse to get stingy. The space-eating Blues have been doing it all year, and it showed in a taut 1-0 road win on Sunday.
 
Frustrating the NHL's best power play during a pivotal two-man disadvantage at the start of the second period, the Blues continued their mastery of the Eastern Conference by beating the Penguins the way they've beaten so many teams this season.
 
The room to maneuver that Pittsburgh stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin usually enjoy disappeared as St. Louis clogged passing lanes and dictated play defensively.
 
David Backes deflected a slap shot by Alexander Steen past Marc-Andre Fleury midway through the third period for the game's only goal and Brian Elliott stopped 33 shots to pick up his fourth shutout of the season as the Blues moved three points clear of Chicago in the race for the best record in the Western Conference.
 
"When you're in a tight game like that against a good team, the guys kind of rose up to the challenge and I tried to make a couple saves and get the rebounds out of the zone and they did the rest," Elliott said.
 
Fleury made 26 saves for the Penguins but watched Backes' deflection carom off his glove and into the net just after a penalty against Malkin expired.
 
"I just saw the guy raise his stick for the shot," Fleury said. "There were a bunch of people in front. I tried to cover some net but I didn't see it go in.
 
St. Louis bounced back from a one-sided loss at Philadelphia on Saturday to improve the league's best road record to 23-11-3. Pittsburgh's top-ranked power play went 0-for-5 a day after scoring three times in a win over Tampa Bay.
 
When Elliott wasn't getting a pad on the puck, his teammates were. The Blues blocked 25 shots, with the Penguins' frustration growing at every turn as the Blues improved to 20-5-2 against the Eastern Conference, the best interconference record in the league.
 
Pittsburgh had a 5-on-3 power play at the beginning of the second period for more than 90 seconds without being able to sneak something by Elliott. Most of the time the Penguins struggled generating a shot as the Blues effectively disrupted Pittsburgh's rhythm.
 
"We just kind of cleared lanes and I was able to see the ones they took," Elliott said. "Whenever guys are moving big guys out of the way, it just helps and you saw guys get in front of shots, block them and clear them down."
 
Malkin was called for high-sticking 9:17 into the third and he was barely out of the box and back on the ice when Backes gave St. Louis the lead. The puck cycled to the point and Alexander Steen fired a slap shot that Backes found a way to nick as it sailed by. His 24th goal of the year proved more than enough.
 
Elliott wobbled several times - including at least two saves where it appeared the puck was creeping to the goal line when the whistle blew - but didn't collapse. When the clock expired after one last clear up the zone, the game ended with the unusual sight of Malkin trying to mix it up with Alex Pietrangelo.
 
Bylsma said coming into an important weekend he wanted his team to get used to playing tightly contested, low-scoring games. Pittsburgh survived one on Saturday, rallying for a 4-3 overtime win against the streaking Lightning that featured 40 minutes of clamp-down hockey and 22 minutes of frantic play.
 
The Blues, who have positioned themselves into contenders in the West by sealing off the net, would not be lulled into the kind of end-to-end stretches that allow the Penguins to run free.
 
"We still want to do a better job in these games and win them," Crosby said. "We have done a pretty good job of being patient when we've been in these kinds of games."
 
At times, Bylsma wonders if his club was too patient, particularly in the first period.
 
"The first 20 minutes we backed them off with speed," he said. "We had some opportunities and needed to have more of a drive and shoot mentality."
 
NOTES: The Penguins played with seven defensemen instead of six, a move Bylsma said was needed in a game where he knew open ice would be at a premium. ... St. Louis plays in Toronto on Tuesday while the Penguins host Phoenix on Tuesday.
 
Sunday, 23 March 2014 18:27
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