If you were looking for a reason to believe this season is going to be better than Florida's past few, it came last night. UF's mindset in recent years has seemingly been "Well, we've strung together a win streak. Better lose one." I'm not sure UF has moved on from that strategy since the Gators tried their best to lose to Tennessee on Saturday, but the difference is they were able to win despite themselves.
Erving Walker was the hero, as his furious drive to the basket and left-handed lay-up between three defenders with 14 seconds left provided the winner in a 61-60 victory.
Here's what they overcame last night:
-Alex Tyus had an assist on the Gators' first bucket and scored their next six points. It was looking like a good night until he turned the ball over three times in four minutes, leading to six points in a 15-4 run by UT. Then, with 31 seconds left and UF down 60-59, he bricked two free throws and only avoided being the goat because UT missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Walker's heroics.
-They allowed five three-pointers and turned the ball over 10 times in the first half. "Robbed blind" doesn't quite describe Tennessee's nine steals before the half. It was more like a looting, yet they only trailed by six.
-Patric Young grabbed a rebound with 57 seconds left and a 59-58 lead, but he was stripped of the ball and UT's Cameron Tatum laid it in. Really stunning to see that from Young, who's been valuable because of his aggressiveness.
-Kenny Boynton was out from the 6:10 mark to the 0:25 mark.He got a technical for slamming the ball after being fouled, and Donovan sat him down. Vernon Macklin only played 10 minutes in the second half because of foul trouble, and Chandler Parsons limped through most of his game-high 37 minutes with a thigh bruise after colliding with Tyus (does Tyus owe some bookies money or something? He did have 11 rebounds though). Parsons scored just three points and had three rebounds, meaning three of UF's four best players were largely ineffective for the end of a Florida-Tennessee game.
You can probably think of more mistakes if you watched, but even all that wasn't enough to secure a defeat, and the Gators have two people to thank for that: Walker and Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin (henceforth referred to as either Drake or Drizzy) had five points and an assist, but without him, Walker never gets a chance to be the hero.
Tennessee's Scotty Hopson went OFF last night. He had 15 points in the first half and was at 21 with 7:40 to go. That's when Billy Donovan sent Drizzy into the game and told him to stick on Hopson. That's a lot to ask of an unheralded freshman, but Drake held Hopson to one point for the rest of the night. Amazing work. Thank Him Later.
And that brings us to Walker. He can be a liability on defense, and his height can make things difficult on offense sometimes, but boy does he seize the big moments. Donovan had drawn up a play for UF's final possession, but when Walker saw open space in the lane, he darted to the hoop and made a very tough lay-up to take the lead and prompt Tyus to say "Thanks for saving my ass" (pictured).
The best part of the postgame interviews was Donovan's assessment of Walker's mindset in clutch situations:
“I’ve coached guys that love to take the last shot because they don’t want to shy away from it, but they have no intention of making it. ... I think a lot of it has to do with, being his size, he can’t win the dunk contest and do all those things. He’s not a spectacular player, so the only way he’s able to win respect is through winning. I totally understand it, because I went through the same thing as a player.”
Yes, they pounded South Carolina and Arkansas, who aren't very good, but three of their last four wins have come by a total of seven points. You'd like to see them play like the top-10 team everyone expected them to be, but at least they're winning. For the first time since 2007, I don't have to sit here and try to project the NCAA Tourney bubble. Barring a huge collapse, Florida (20-5, 9-2 SEC) is goin' dancing, with the possibility of landing a really high seed if it wins the SEC Tourney.
Side note: The win makes UF one of five schools to reach 20 victories in 13 straight seasons (Kansas, Duke, Syracuse and Gonzaga). Donovan said when he was hired that athletics director Jeremy Foley asked him how many 20-win seasons he thought Florida had. Donovan's guess was "20 or 25," and Foley shot back "Five."
Thoughts on last night's game? A bunch of exciting basketball going on in the O'Dome lately, with close games and the top two crowds in school history in the last week. How good do you feel about this team heading into the postseason?