Not too bad drama for ESPN viewing


Published: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 12:10 a.m.

Maybe ESPN knew what it was doing coming to Gainesville.

They could have done a lot worse than Saturday night's heart-in-the-throat Florida win over Kentucky.

And maybe, just maybe, they saw a team grow up on a nasty night.

Because Florida, a team that seemed as if it only had one way to win, found others against the Wildcats.

More than anything, these Gators showed they could stand in the face of despair and bounce back.

After Kentucky rallied to tie the game and send it to overtime, Florida got it down in a game that almost looked like it was one that was going to get away.

Instead, it is deposited on the front page of this team's resume.

I know, this is a Kentucky team that is down. It is a Kentucky team that is now two games under .500. But it is still Kentucky and it's still seven in a row over Kentucky.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this Florida win was that the Gators won by playing defense and by finding ways to score other than 3-pointers. The defense has been a question all year but against Kentucky, it was like a different team out there. And with Kentucky playing extraordinary defense on the perimeter, Florida couldn't rely on the 3s that have been their strong suit.

Instead, they ran an offense that found back doors and drives to the basket. They missed free throws when they mattered, they made them when they mattered the most.

They won a game they had to win. I know it's early and I know Kentucky's RPI is inflated, but it was still a must win. It was at home. And it was a test of how far this young team has come.

There were times when they looked like a bunch of freshmen. But they bounced back with the guile of a bunch of veterans.

And we may have seen not only a team grow up, but Marreese Speights finally understand what it takes to be a big-time player in this league.

After sitting out the last 12 minutes of the loss to Mississippi, Speights was the beast we thought he'd be against Kentucky, outplaying super-freshman Patrick Patterson. Speights finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and four blocks.

Not a bad showing on the worldwide leader.

There were a lot of reasons why ESPN chose to send the GameDay crew to Gainesville and none of them had to do with the present. Instead, it was about the past — Kentucky's flirtation with Billy Donovan, Florida's six straight wins over the ’Cats.

And because it wasn't so much about the present, they were hardly hanging from the rafters behind the talking heads Saturday morning. They could have drawn a bigger crowd if they announced Tim Tebow was flexing at mid-court. Was that a GameDay crowd or a Ron Paul rally?

It was hardly the hysteria that accompanied the first visit by the ESPN show two years ago or the desperate Big Blue fans last year in Lexington. Instead, this was a game with the two-time defending national champs (but not really) against Kentucky Light.

(The game still brought out the stars including Tebow, Al Horford, Brad Wilkerson and Josh Fogg).

What it lacked in pre-game buzz, Florida-Kentucky made up for in energy, both in the stands and on the floor. You'd have thought they were playing for something more than, well, for simply an early SEC victory.

Maybe that's what contributed to a lack of offense. Heck, even Stick Man missed his only first-half shot (for the night 0-for-2).

It wasn't pretty but defense can make a basketball game look ragged, especially when hand-checks and elbows are considered part of the ball.

What was pretty for Gator fans was another win over Kentucky. For Donovan, it was a special night, not because it was Kentucky but because of the way his team played, gritty and gutty. The only blemish — someone parking in Donovan's space at the O'Connell Center before the game. Can a guy get some respect?

I'm not sure what was more impressive Saturday night.

Florida making it seven straight over Kentucky.

Or Florida playing like a team I wasn't sure we'd see this season.

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