No. 6 Florida accomplishes exactly what was needed


Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 11:53 p.m.

It was nice of the Florida basketball team to deliver a ho-hum 13-point win to its fans Wednesday night. Their hearts couldn't have taken another game like Saturday's win over Georgia.

Instead, the Gators rolled over Tennessee in business-like fashion. Call it pedestrian. Call it boring even. It was exactly what Billy Donovan's team needed to do.

The Gators showed, at least at this point in time, that they have learned from past swelled heads. They came in confident, but focused and it was a breeze.

Really, Florida was never threatened. Well, maybe when the Vols had pulled to within nine and Jon Higgins released a dead-on shot from three-point range. But the shot fell short and you'll never guess who had a mini-run to put the game away.

Remember Brett Nelson?

Sure you do. I know this because I've heard his name screamed in the O'Connell Center.

Nelson's night started like so many have this season for the senior. His first three-pointer rimmed out. His second missed, too. The students immediately started chanting for Christian Drejer, set to make his Gator debut, even though he doesn't play the same position.

And when Anthony Roberson finally did replace Nelson, it got loud in the O-Dome.

Finally, late in the first half, Nelson hit a three and the place went crazy. Tennessee called timeout and Nelson was mobbed by his teammates. He looked stunned by the attention. Turns out he was.

"It's crazy," he said. "Sometimes, it's like I never made a shot in my career. I've made a few here. I expect to make them."

The funny thing is this team doesn't have to have a scorching Brett Nelson. It doesn't have to have 25 minutes from Christian Drejer. It has been doing fine without Nelson being able to make a shot and with Drejer keeping his ankle elevated.

But with them, with Nelson playing well and Drejer in shape, the imagination of the Gator fan runs wild.

Drejer was just in there to experience the atmosphere, playing seven minutes and scoring four points late. Nelson, on the other hand, finally showed some signs of life - or rather life before last season.

With Tennessee within nine after a 10-3 run, Nelson hit two free throws. then followed them up with a 10-foot jumper. Next time down the floor, he fed David Lee for a dunk. Next possession, a Nelson 15-footer. Next possession, a bullet pass to Lee that would have led to an easy score were Lee not fouled.

After Lee made both free throws, it was 61-44. And over.

For the game, Nelson scored a season-high 13 points and had five assists.

"I've been doing a lot of extra shooting," he said. "I'll come in after practice at night and shoot until I make 100 or 200 shots."

Until he makes 200 shots? The way Tennessee's star forward Ron Slay shot it Wednesday night, it would take him the rest of January to make 200.

Slay, the SEC's version of a Globetrotter, made 7-of-24 shots thanks to stiff defense provided by Matt Bonner. Bonner was also the offensive star with 25 points.

"Matt did a terrific job scouting-report wise," Donovan said. "He was very good position-wise."

The words "wise" and "Matt Bonner" seem to flow together, no?

"The biggest thing I told Matt is he is not allowed to foul," Donovan said.

Slay shot only two free throws in the game. That was part of the problem for the Vols, a middle-of-the-pack SEC team that can be dangerous and had won four of its last five games. But Tennessee got out of its gameplan early, trying to match Florida's avalanche of three-point shots. Higgins hit three in a row before Donovan put the human clamp on him - Justin Hamilton.

It was a difficult night for Hamilton, whose mother Amy underwent surgery Wednesday morning. The good son was there for the surgery, then drove back from Sarasota for the game.

"I don't think Justin was Justin," Donovan said. "He wasn't all there mentally."

Hamilton didn't score until he made a free throw with 21 seconds remaining. But Florida didn't need his offense Wednesday night. The Gators got plenty from Bonner, from Lee who had 14 points, and for a good game from Nelson.

"Any time you make a few shots or make a good play, it helps your confidence," Nelson said.

And confidence is something these Gators are swimming in right now.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053.

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