Florida beats Arkansas, remains unbeaten in SEC

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 4:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 4:20 p.m.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Are these guys who we thought they were?

Florida began Southeastern Conference play with traits similar to last year’s squad that suffered a late-season meltdown -- poor defense, inconsistent perimeter shooting and an inability to play physical underneath the basket.

The Gators haven’t solved all of those issues yet, but showed signs of turning a corner in Saturday’s 80-65 win against Arkansas. Behind another near triple-double from Nick Calathes, Florida (16-2, 3-0 SEC) extended its winning streak to 10 games and remained unblemished in league play.

“We don’t mind the doubters,” said Calathes, who led Florida with 28 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. “We’re just trying to get better in each practice and each game.”

That’s not to say there weren’t some anxious moments. After jumping to a quick 10-2 lead, Florida allowed Arkansas to score 16 of the game’s next 17 points. The Razorbacks went ahead 18-11 on an inside layup from Michael Sanchez, and it appeared that the Gators were in for a long afternoon.

Calathes helped Florida regain momentum with an inside putback to cut the Arkansas lead to 18-13. Then, after a string of 11 straight Florida misses from 3-point range, Calathes again came to the rescue, hitting a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put Florida ahead 34-30 with 3:12 left in the first half.

Florida led 37-34 at halftime and found its shooting range in the second half, going 8-for-13 from 3-point range in the game’s final 20 minutes.Calathes hit back-to-back 3-pointers to extend the Florida lead to 56-41, the second coming off a nifty save of a ball heading out of bounds from freshman center KennyKadji.

Kadji provided another lift off the bench with 10 points. Erving Walker added 13 points for Florida, Alex Tyus scored 11 points and Chandler Parsons had 10 points.

“I thought in a lot of ways, Nick really carried us in the first half,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “In the second half, we started to get into a little bit of a rhythm. We made shots and the difference in the second half was the 3-point line.”

Donovan prepared his team for a bang-fest, putting lids on the rims during practices leading up to Arkansas to try to get his team to focus on rebounding. The strategy worked. Floridaoutrebounded Arkansas 39-33 and scored 18 second-chance points off 14 offensive rebounds.

Florida held Arkansas center Michael Washington, the SEC’s leading rebounder at 10.5 per game, to eight boards and just two on the offensive glass.

“We might not be the most physical team, but we try to make up for it with our passion and our desire,” Parsons said.

Washington led Arkansas (12-4, 0-3 SEC) with 21 points. Senior Marcus Monk and freshman Courtney Fortson added 10 points apiece, but Fortson had eight of Arkansas’ 19 turnovers. Florida took advantage, scoring 25 points off the turnovers.

“We had too many turnovers,” Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said. “When we do take care of the basketball, we need to be able to score at a very high rate. We just couldn’t hold onto it enough to keep close.”

Again, Florida upperclassmen Walter Hodge and Dan Werner got into first-half foul trouble, forcing Donovan into some makeshift lineups. At one point, Donovan was forced to play freshman Allan Chaney at center and Parsons at power forward.

“Allan told me during a timeout, coach, I haven’t played center all season in practice,” Donovan said. “Then, Chandler turned to me and said, well, ‘I can play center.’ “

Florida overcame the first-half confusion to post another league win. But following the game, Donovan cautioned his team against feeling too confident. Last year, Florida began the season 18-3 before fading to a 3-8 stretch in February and early March. As a result, Florida failed to make the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 1998.

“I would be really disappointed in our guys if they feel like they have it all figured out,” Donovan said.

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