Donovan's team displaying grit
Published: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 10:23 p.m.
COLUMBIA, S.C. - After Florida rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat South Carolina 77-75 Saturday night at the Carolina Center, USC coach Dave Odom was remarkably upbeat.
"I think we were able to run with one of the best teams in the country," Odom said. "I really felt Florida played its best game and we were able to stay with them."
Odom was half right. His Gamecocks were able to run with Florida until the game's final seconds. But as far as the Gators playing their best game? Nope. Not even close.
The consensus was that South Carolina had played over its head just to be able to hang with Florida. The Gamecocks played great. The Gators played mediocre and then turned it on at the end.
Florida still won. South Carolina's best, in front of a record home crowd, wasn't enough.
"I really feel that we didn't play very well," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We knew South Carolina would be ready for us and they were. It was a tremendous battle."
Four games into Southeastern Conference play, the Gators are 4-0 and have withstood close, tight games against Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina as well as an easy win over Tennessee. In three of the games, Florida had to rally from second-half deficits. Since the Dec. 3 loss to West Virginia, the Gators have won 11 straight, five of which were decided by five or fewer points.
"I think the difference is experience," Florida senior captain Matt Bonner said. "If you look at last year and we lost most of our games because we couldn't make plays down the stretch. We weren't aggressive enough. The guys who are on the team this year know that and they can play fearless. I think that combination has been the difference this year."
A similarity between this year and last year is Florida's 4-0 conference start. But a year ago, the Gators went a mediocre 6-6 in their final 12 conference games. Last year, it was primarily just Bonner, Udonis Haslem and Brett Nelson providing the offense. This year? Take your pick. While Bonner, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson have been Florida's three most consistent scorers, David Lee and Justin Hamilton have also been steady.
The Gators have been able to build this win streak despite the season-long slump of Brett Nelson, and the injury to Christian Drejer.
Nelson was 1 for 6 from the floor Saturday, and Drejer played just eight minutes, one more than he did in his debut against Tennessee. Florida won despite that. Without them, the Gators are still playing like one of the best teams in the country. If Nelson finds his shot and Drejer gets more comfortable on the court, this team appears to have the potential to continue to get better.
"We got through the first four games and now it's time to prepare for Game 5," Donovan said. "The only thing we can do now is prepare for Vanderbilt."
Florida hosts the Commodores at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the O'Connell Center.
You can reach Dylan B. Tomlinson by calling 374-5054 or by e-mail at email@example.com
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