UF rallies for its 11th straight win

Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 2:48 a.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Just a few minutes before his team took the court Saturday, Florida coach Billy Donovan wanted to make sure that, just for a moment, his team wasn't focused on its upcoming game.

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South Carolina's Carlos Powell tries to pass the ball off as Florida's Bonell Colas (42) and Matt Bonner defend Saturday.

(AP Photo)

He wanted his players to think about five others.

No. 1 Duke had lost to Maryland. No. 10 Notre Dame had lost to Kentucky. No. 9 Alabama had lost to Auburn. No. 8 Illinois had lost to Indiana. No. 6 Connecticut had lost to North Carolina.

"All five of those losses were on our blackboard before the game," Donovan said.

It was "Upset Saturday" and Donovan wanted no part of it.

The No. 6 Gators nearly joined the list of upset victims. It was close.

Very close.

Florida freshman Matt Walsh had a key pass, a pair of free throws and two key rebounds in the final seconds as Florida rallied late for a 77-75 victory over South Carolina in front of 17,038 at the Carolina Center.

The game had been messy. Walsh helped clean it up.

With 33 seconds left and the score tied at 72, Walsh hit Matt Bonner with a picture-perfect bounce pass which Bonner dunked home to give Florida the lead.

"It was a great backdoor pass," Donovan said. "It was a huge play for us."

Walsh wasn't done. After the Gators (15-2, 4-0 in the SEC) stopped the Gamecocks (7-7, 1-3) on the next possession, Walsh was fouled and sent to the line with a chance to build Florida's lead to four.

As the crowd taunted and screamed obscenities at him, Walsh calmly nailed both free throws. He then pointed to the crowd as he ran back down the court.

"For them to yell at me that much, I must be doing something right," Walsh said. "I was happy and I was having some fun."

But thanks to Carlos Powell, the game wasn't over just yet.

The first of Powell's heaves went in and cut a 4-point lead to 1. After freshman Anthony Roberson hit a free throw to give Florida a 2-point lead, Powell's 30-footer fell short and gave Florida its 11th straight win.

While the ending was neat and clean, the rest of the game was anything but. In the first half, the Gators couldn't do anything to stop South Carolina center Tony Kitchings.

Kitchings had a season-high 22, 19 of which came in the first half. South Carolina's frontcourt dominance was a big reason why Florida trailed at 44-37 at the break.

"I wasn't happy with our defense in the first half at all," Donovan said. "I tried to challenge our frontcourt at halftime to come out and do better."

It did. Kitchings was only able to manage one shot the rest of the game.

While looking for a frontcourt player to step his game up, Donovan found an unlikely volunteer. The biggest reason the Gators were in the game at all was junior forward Bonell Colas, who scored a career-high 16 points, and other than Bonner and Walsh, was Florida's most effective offensive threat.

"That's one of the best games Bonell has had for us," Donovan said, in a colossal understatement. "We needed someone to step up and I was thrilled with the job Matt Walsh, Bonell and Matt Bonner did."

Colas entered the game averaging 10 minutes and 2.7 points, but Saturday he was the secret weapon. As the Gamecocks focused their attention on stopping Bonner and Walsh, Florida's top scorers, the Gators were able to work the ball inside to Colas, who was being guarded loosely, if at all.

Bonner led Florida with 19 points and nine rebounds. Walsh had 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists and just a single turnover. Kerbrell Brown had 22 for the Gamecocks.

It was the fifth time in a row the Gators had won a game decided by five or fewer points. It was the third time in SEC play Florida had won a game after trailing at halftime. Most importantly, it was the 11th straight game the Gators had won.

"This was a tough win," Donovan said. "We'll take them any way we can get them."

Dylan B. Tomlinson covers UF men's basketball for The Sun. You can reach him by calling 374-5054 or by e-mail at tomlind@gvillesun.com.

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