SYRACUSE, New York (Ticker) -- The Cowboys did not have enough in their arsenal to shoot down Billy the Kid's young guns.
Florida nearly blew all of a 17-point second-half lead but held on to defeat Oklahoma State, 77-65, in the NCAA Tournament's East Region final at the Carrier Dome and will play in the Final Four for the second time in school history.
The Gators (28-7), who were beaten by Duke in the 1994 national semifinals, will battle another Atlantic Coast Conference power -- North Carolina -- on Saturday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
Florida and North Carolina were together at the Maui Invitational to begin the season in November but did not play. The schools will battle for the first time since 1965.
"I just think they are a great basketball team," Florida forward Mike Miller said of North Carolina. "Coach (Bill) Guthridge has them playing their best basketball at the right time." Florida coach Billy Donovan is also heading to the Final Four for the second time. He starred under Rick Pitino and led Providence to an unlikely berth in college basketball's premier event in 1987.
"It's a great thrill," Donovan said. "I'm just happy for the kids. They worked so hard." Known as "Billy the Kid," Donovan is in his fourth season at the helm of the Gators and 6-1 in the NCAA Tournament, making him Florida's all-time winningest coach in the "Big Dance." He is the fourth-youngest coach to guide a team to the Final Four and also reached the Final Four as an assistant to Pitino at Kentucky.
Featuring a deep 10-man rotation that includes just one senior, the Gators will battle history next weekend. No fifth seed has ever appeared in the national champinship game.
Florida was seeded third in the East Region when it reached the 1994 Final Four. Ironically, that year the Gators benefited from a second-round loss by top-seeded North Carolina.
The Cowboys (27-7) cut a 50-33 deficit to 56-53 on a 3-pointer by Glendon Alexander with just under eight minutes left.
But Teddy Dupay and Miller made a pair of free throws and Miller drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key that pushed Florida's advantage to 63-53 with 6:16 remaining.
"When you are playing catch-up against a good ballclub it takes up so much energy," Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said.
It was Miller's buzzer-beater in overtime that beat Butler in the first round. Today, he had 14 points and five rebounds to lead Florida's balanced attack.
"I think we're all coming out for one reason and that's to live to see another day," said Miller. "We're going to go to Indianapolis with the same mindset." Alexander scored 13 points for Oklahoma State, which fell short of its sixth Final Four appearance and first since 1995.
At the outset, Florida used its tenacious press defense to take control of the game.
David Hamilton had two follow shots during an early 9-0 burst that gave the Gators an 11-7 lead. Miller scored the first five points of a 10-0 run and Donnell Harvey's three-point play made it 33-18 with 10 minutes left in the first half.
Florida took a 43-31 lead into intermisson and opened the second half on a 7-1 run. Brent Wright hit short jumper, giving the Gators the 17-point bulge with 16:15 remaining.
But suddenly, the momentum switched hands. Desmond Mason and Alexander drained back-to-back 3-pointers and Brian Montonati's steal and dunk brought Oklahoma State within 50-42 with 14:10 to play.
"We got off to a great start in the second half. And we just did not have enough in our tank (to keep it going) and I tried to prod our guys to keep up the pace," said Donovan.
Shortly thereafter, the Cowboys put together a quick seven-point burst. Fredrik Jonzen hit a jumper and made two free throws and Alexander's 3-pointer brought Oklahoma State as close as it would get.
"In the second half they really spurted on us," Sutton said. "But I think our team really came back and competed to get within four points. We had a chance but we just couldn't get over the hump." Udonis Haslem and Donnell Harvey scored 10 points apiece for Florida. Hasley had six straight during a 1:32 stretch during the waning minutes as the Gators pulled away.
"I think what happened (down the stretch) is we did a good job of rebounding and limiting them to one shot," Donovan added.
The Gators held a 35-28 advantage on the boards behind Harvey's six rebounds and connected on 51 percent (26-of-51) of their shots, including 6-of-18 from behind the arc. Florida outscored Oklahoma State at the foul line, 19-8.
Jonzen collected 14 points and seven rebounds and Alexander contributed 13 points, including four 3-pointers, for the Cowboys, who shot 42 percent (25-of-59) from the field and 7-of-20 from behind the arc.
"We had a lot of chances to get back in the game," said Mason. "We had the plays but we didn't take advantage of them." .