Gators make a rally call
Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 1:37 a.m.
The mantra was set last September, when the balls started bouncing again after a 2003-04 season that ended too soon by Florida standards.
Florida coach Billy Donovan wanted to mold a team that found other ways to win when the shooting went south. Practices were geared toward defense. Rebounding was emphasized.
On Sunday, Florida showed it absorbed some of those lessons during its 17-point comeback win at South Carolina. And the Gators, labeled as heartless following their 75-60 quick NCAA Tournament exit to Manhattan a season ago, may have convinced some national pundits to think twice before crossing them quickly off their tournament bracket sheets.
"We have more ways to win as a team," Donovan said. "That ultimately is what you look at when you look at the difference between a good team and a mediocre team."
Florida stayed resilient. Even when it had opportunities to fold.
Down 46-29 with a little more than 13 minutes remaining, Florida's improbable comeback began with a Lee Humphrey 3-pointer and ended with a put-back by senior forward David Lee. In between, Florida hit the floor for loose balls, maintained defensive intensity and discipline and grabbed every rebound in sight. South Carolina was outrebounding Florida by six when it called time out down 17. Florida ended up outrebounding South Carolina by three, 40-37.
"We weren't going to have a team embarrass us on the road," Lee said. "It very easily could have gotten to 30 points if guys started pouting. The last thing you want is to be embarrassed in front of friends and family on national television."
Said Junior guard Matt Walsh: "I was embarrassed. It wasn't fun being down 17. I think this shows how far this team has come."
During the timeout, Donovan emphasized getting stops on the defensive end and executing on offense. The lead dwindled slowly. Lee said the team set a goal to cut the lead to single-digits by the eight-minute mark. It did, with a little help from a technical foul by South Carolina forward Antoine Tisby.
"All of the sudden, you think, maybe a 6-0 run and you get it down to one possession," Lee said.
An 11-3 run cut South Carolina's lead to 60-59. Walsh, on a designed play by Donovan off a timeout, hit a 3-pointer from the right side to give Florida its first lead of the second half, 62-61.
"It felt good, for coach to have that much confidence in me," Walsh said.
Normally, Florida looks to Anthony Roberson for big shots down the stretch.
"You have to try to mix it up in that situation," Donovan said. "The last thing you want to be labeled at that point of the game is one dimensional."
Walsh, after missing a 3-point attempt that went three-quarters of the way down, later gave up his body to dive for a loose ball. He was fouled by South Carolina guard Tre Kelley as he attempted to regain possession.
Walsh didn't let the missed shot affect his mindset on defense.
"At that point in the game, every possession was so important," Walsh said. "Loose balls, you had to have them."
As much as Florida would like to build on the momentum of its largest comeback in the Donovan era, it must first figure out some ways to try to avert from getting into a 17-point hole again. Shot selection in the first half was questionable. Florida's defense allowed Kelley too many easy drives to the basket.
"Any time you try to change habits, it's a process," Donovan said. "Sometimes we have lapses where we're capable of defending and rebounding better. It's got to become second-nature to them."
For now, players can take solace in knowing they can do it. With the calendar now at March, with the regular season winding down with games this week against Georgia and Kentucky, confidence comes at an opportune time.
"Just knowing you are in the game with a chance to do what we did last night will be good enough to get this team a bunch of victories," Lee said.
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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