It's early, but UF had to win this game


Published: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:03 p.m.

Maybe it wasn't riveting. Maybe it wasn't electric in the O-Dome on Saturday night, certainly not like it was four nights ago. Maybe it was more like "Unplugged."

Maybe it wasn't a full arena. Rain, AFC playoff game, Florida's SEC record, the opponent. I can give you a lot of reasons why people didn't show up.

Maybe it wasn't attractive. Never is when the winning team misses 10 free throws and the losers miss 10 3-pointers.

Maybe it wasn't must-see TV. Sure, there were some nice plays by the Gators, but we knew what we were in for when LSU's Storm Warren let out a big yawn as he prepared for the jump ball to start the game. LSU looked disinterested, which was punctuated by Tigers coach Trent Johnson sitting in his chair looking disgusted for the last 12 minutes of the game.

All of these things made for a less-than-thrilling basketball game at the O'Connell Center. But it might have been the most important night of the year for Florida's basketball team.

"Nobody said winning is always going to be pretty," said point guard Erving Walker. "But losing is even uglier."

The fact Florida was facing a must-win game in only its third game of the conference season tells you where the Gators are right now. With 13 conference games and a tournament left, you can argue that there cannot be a must-win game on Jan. 16.

But to go to 0-3 at this point would have washed away those nice non-conference wins. It would have set off alarms all around the country. And it would have been difficult to sell Florida basketball as important the rest of the season.

So this had to happen. Even if Billy Donovan said it didn't have to happen.

"If we had lost, we'd still have 14 games left," he said. "I didn't get the feeling that, 'Oh my God, we're 0-2.' But I have a hard time figuring these guys out sometimes."

You can understand why Donovan didn't want his team to feel the pressure of what 0-3 would mean. Heck, while he's trying to patch together practices with so many injuries it probably didn't cross his mind.

But for a program trying to recapture some of the momentum of the runaway train that was the Oh-Fours, this was a game the Gators had to have.

And the perfect team came to town.

LSU was an NCAA Tournament team last year but it will not be this year. The Tigers signature win is an overtime loss to Washington State. And they are one of the few teams in the SEC that Florida matches up with physically.

"They weren't too big at all the positions," said Walker. "They had small guards for me and Kenny (Boynton)."

The Tigers also have little quality depth, which is why they had faded in three of their last six games. On this night, the fade started early when Florida turned a seven-point halftime lead into a 20-point lead with 14:35 to play.

"We definitely didn't want to come out of it 0-3," said Chandler Parsons, who got the start because the flu ruined Dan Werner's week.

One team had to leave the floor 0-3 and it couldn't be Florida, not if the Gators wanted to keep the fan base interested and the goals reachable.

If nothing else, this game was an example of how fleeting fame can be for basketball programs at football schools. It hasn't even been a full four years since Florida andLSU made up half of the Final Four in Indianapolis. Yet, here they were, fighting for relevancy and trying to avoid the cellar of the conference.

The issues were still there. But for a night, they didn't matter.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com.

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