Walker's play solid enough in debut

Florida forward Chris Walker defends a Missouri player during the Gators' 68-58 win Tuesday at the O'Connell Center.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 1:19 a.m.

When the ball was lofted into the air and you saw him rise, you knew what was coming. Months of frustration were released in one thunderous slam. It wasn't only Chris Walker who cut loose, it was the fans who came to see him.

“Let it go,” he said. “That's what I did.”

But, as Billy Donovan kept trying to remind us, Tuesday night's game was as much about DeVon Walker as it was Chris Walker. It was about two physical, NCAA-ready teams facing off in a key conference game.

And unlike most of the teams that have come to the O'Connell Center this year, Missouri wasn't going to wilt in the face of Florida's press and a throaty crowd.

In the end, the guys who keep getting it done got it done again. That's 28 straight at home, and the Gators are officially 1-0 with Chris Walker.

There was no way the 6-foot-10 freshman could have lived up to the anticipation of his first game. He would have had to fly around the O'Dome dropping $100 bills to the crowd, won an Oscar and scored all of Florida's points in the 68-58 win.

But you know what he did?

He helped Florida win an important game.

And in the end, that's what it's all about.

He helped.

“We're happy he's playing,” said senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, who was again money in crunch time. “He came in and did his job. He helped us in the way he can help us.”

Walker scored a pair of baskets in the first half on vicious alley-oop dunks and blocked a pair of shots. He hardly played in the second half (two minutes).

But he helped. He kept the bigs a little fresher in a game built for fatigue. Coincidence that Patric Young came up big down the stretch?

“It would have been nice if he could have played the last game when we had a big lead,” said Young, who finished with 13 points. “He could have played more in that game. But it was nice to have him out there.”

Missouri was something of a set-up game for the Gators, not to take anything away from a Tigers team that has the player I believe is the best in the SEC in Jabari Brown and a team full of guys with thick shoulders. Maybe it was just you and I who were distracted from the task at hand.

“It's exciting,” Wilbekin said. “But it was more for the fans and you guys.”

But no matter how much Donovan tried to temper the enthusiasm of the Gator Nation, it had to be a bit of a distraction. Not necessarily to Walker, but to the other players who have been here through offseason workouts and grueling practices and that brutal stretch of non-conference games.

Especially when there were five NBA scouts at Florida's Monday practice.

“I really didn't know what to expect,” Donovan said of Walker's performance. “I thought he contributed very positively.”

Walker received an amazing ovation when he went out onto the court … to loosen up. Meanwhile, the guys who had won 19 games, 13 in a row, had to feel like sidebars.

When Walker missed his first free throw in warmups, the students awwwwwed. When he made his second, another ovation.

They were just thrilled to go from “Free Chris Walker” to “See Chris Walker.”

This was the most anticipated debut at the O'Connell Center since, well, good luck trying to find an analogy. This scenario — dropping a McDonald's All-American into the rotation of the nation's No. 3 team — is so unprecedented it's almost bizarre.

When Walker left the bench to come into the game, the students erupted and Missouri turned it over. He was already affecting the game. I'm kidding, of course.

But he did help.

“I heard them,” he said. “The crowd helped me out a little bit.”

You have to think it's going to get better as he catches up. But on this night, in an important game for the nation's third-ranked team, Walker didn't discover a cure for baldness or flip any football commitments.

“He's a part of our team now,” Donovan said. “The story is hopefully a dead issue. But I'm proud of our older guys. You inject a talented guy into the lineup and they can start wondering how it's going to affect their minutes. But they went out of their way to help Chris.”

And then he helped. And his was cheered like no other four-point, two-rebound performance.

“I'm glad to get it behind me” Walker said. “It feels good to be a part of the team.”

And that team got better Tuesday night.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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