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Phillips settles in as coach

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - At age 35, Saul Phillips can now officially call himself a head college basketball coach. Friday night in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center - home of the two-time defending national champion Florida Gators - the 5-foot-11 Philli...

Phillips

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - At age 35, Saul Phillips can now officially call himself a head college basketball coach.

Friday night in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center - home of the two-time defending national champion Florida Gators - the

5-foot-11 Phillips was pacing the sideline seconds before his debut as NDSU's head coach.

He greeted the late-arriving Billy Donovan, the slick 42-year-old Florida coach who already is nearing 300 career victories.

Phillips quickly congratulated Donovan on his two national titles. Donovan told Phillips that he has one heck of a team.

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As his players got their final shots in, Phillips walked behind the bench to shake hands with NDSU President Joseph Chapman and Bison booster Gary Tharaldson. He looked up into the upper deck of the nearly full arena with 10,203 Gator fans and waved to his father, Charlie - whose only pre-game advice for his son was to have fun.

"I really thought I would be more nervous than I was," Phillips said. "Then again, it was a pretty easy game for me to settle into."

That's because his Bison - led by four juniors who showed up at NDSU the same time Phillips did four years ago - made their first three field goals and took a 10-4 lead.

"That makes you real comfortable in a hurry," Phillips said.

But before he knew it, he was faced with a decision he really did not want to make when starters Mike Nelson and Brett Winkelman each picked up their second fouls. But he had to sit them on the bench, as any coach would, fearful they would pick up their third fouls.

During a five-minute stretch, with Nelson and Winkelman watching, the Gators went on a 15-0 run - regaining control of the game.

Florida big-man Marreese Speights banged Lucas Moormann to the floor and scored an easy bucket to give Florida a 27-15 lead.

"You've got to call that," Phillips screamed to the officials, flabbergasted that a charging foul wasn't called.

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Phillips watched the young Florida team execute the traditional pick-and-roll play to perfection. It was something he talked to his team about at halftime, trailing 39-25.

"We had to adjust to their screen and roll," Phillips would later say. "They were taking our guy out on the roll and getting open for some easy shots. We had to hug that screen more, switch back and forth. I thought we mixed that up better in the second half."

Despite falling behind by 18 points early in the second half, Phillips saw his experienced junior foursome of Ben Woodside, Winkelman, Nelson and Moormann and redshirt freshman Michael Tveidt get in sync offensively. They scored on 11 of their next 18 possessions to cut the lead to 62-52 with 7:54 remaining.

"We got more into our normal rotation of things," said Phillips, knowing what his team could do when two starters aren't forced to sit on the bench at the same time. "If only one of those guys would have had to sit in the first half, that would've made a huge difference."

Phillips saw his group battle the Gators just as they competed with - and sometimes beat - the Bison varsity when they were redshirt freshmen. Just as they fought their ways to upset wins at Wisconsin and Marquette in 2006. When Moormann's rebound basket made it 71-65, Phillips quickly called time out with 1:45 remaining.

"It was a chance for us to get a quick rest and get something set up on defense," Phillips said. "We needed a big stop at that point."

The stop nearly happened when the outstretched arms of the 6-foot-7 Tveidt forced Florida's Walter Hodge to arch his driving shot high off the glass. The shot rimmed out, just enough to disrupt the timing for a rebound by Winkelman. He was whistled for a foul.

Second later, Speights got free for a slam dunk. Phillips knew then his chance for a major upset in his debut was over.

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"For the most part, I thought we had a winning effort and you would certainly like to see that rewarded," Phillips said one day later, while waiting for the plane to leave for New Jersey. "It was disappointing. But we can't be down for too long. We've got a good, solid Big East team coming up."

That team is Rutgers, a 10-19 team last season that beat Tennessee Tech 70-64 Friday night in front of 2,116 home fans in Piscataway. Led by junior J.R. Inman's 18 points and freshman Corey Chandler's 16 point, Rutgers too likes to utilize the pick-and-roll.

"But I don't think they execute it quite as effectively as Florida," said Phillips, who is confident his team can bounce back from all the hype and disappointment of Florida.

Phillips remembers the last time the Bison had to bounce back in January of 2006. They lost on a buzzer beater at Utah Valley State and flew directly to Madison, Wis., the next day. The following day, the same foursome Phillips relied upon in Florida helped knock off No. 15-ranked Wisconsin 62-55.

They are a big reason Phillips wasn't as nervous as he thought he would be in Gator Country.

"That group has a very calming effect on me," Phillips said. "That familiarity is always a good thing to have, which helped against Florida. You don't get too many chances to play a team like that. It's a start."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

Schnepf's NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com

Phillips settles in as coach Kevin Schnepf 20071111

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