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Wednesday February 5, 2014Gators Welcome New Guy in First Half, Shooting Touch in Second to Rally Past Missouri

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Lost amid the thunderous hype about the new guy, the Florida Gators had another pressing issue Tuesday night.

Namely, Missouri.

Freshman Chris Walker got his moment in the spotlight -- and later in the ESPN highlights -- but the third-ranked Gators needed to summon yet another lock-down and locked-in defensive effort to come from behind in the second half, overtake the Tigers and pull away for a 68-58 win before 12,133 at the O’Connell Center.

Nothing came easy about Florida’s 14th straight win and 28th in a row at home, but it did keep the Gators (20-2, 9-0) two games in front of Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference race. And had the look of one of those grinding kind of road games that UF has been finding a way to win; usually with the type of defense that reared itself in the second half. 

“This was a hard game for us,” UF coach Billy Donovan said after reaching the 20-win mark for the 16th consecutive season, the third-longest streak in the nation under one coach. “It was a struggle all the way through.”

So much was expected -- somewhat unrealistically -- from the raucous crowd that turned out to see Walker, the high-flying McDonald’s All-America center making his much-anticipated debut  in his first game since being ruled eligible by the NCAA. Everyone in the O’Dome, especially the Rowdy Reptiles, wanted to see Walker -- and boy did they ever, even if it was a cameo appearance -- but the Gators (20-2, 9-0) had to take care of business along the way.

Down by three points after a sloppy first half, Florida played better disciplined and more inspired defense after the break, limiting the Tigers to 37 percent from the floor and keeping them 17 points below their average of 75 points per game.

“We got some big stops when we needed them,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said.

Some big baskets, too.

Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin finished with a career-high 19 points, more than half from the free throw line in the closing minutes to ice the game. Frazier scored 14 points, all but two in the second half, while senior center Patric Young posted 13 points and six rebounds.

And then there was Walker, who checked into the game at the 11:28 mark of the first half and went on to score four points -- on two monstrous alley-oop dunks off lob passes from freshman point guard Kasey Hill -- to go with two rebounds, two blocked shots and two fouls in seven minutes.

He wore nothing but smiles after the game, even if his participation was limited.

“It feels good to be part of the team,” said Walker, who only had three touches in the halfcourt on offense, but launched his 6-foot-10 frame and intimidating wingspan at several Mizzou shooters at the other end. “I just want to do my role and contribute whatever I can to help this team continue to win.”

Said Donovan: “Personally, I’m excited that he got to play. You were able to see all the things I’ve been talking about, with his running and athleticism. And I thought he contributed positively. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was proud of his temperament and demeanor for the seven minutes he played.”

Walker’s second slam was much like the first; a two-handed monster throw-down at the end of a lob. It came with six seconds to go in the first half, tied a game the Gators had trailed by five a few minutes earlier and sent crowd into a tizzy.

But when the Gators immediately lost sight of Mizzou guard Jabari Brown, who drained a 30-footer at the halftime buzzer, Donovan was sent into a tizzy of his own.

“He was livid,” Young said.

But the coach saw an upside, though he didn’t share it with his players at the time.

“It might have been better going into locker room down three,” he said. “It deflated Chris’s play and made us refocus.”

The Gators saw the basket at their end of the floor with more clarity in the second half. After hitting just 39 percent in the first period, with a woeful 1-for-11 effort from the arc, UF hit its first three 3-point attempts out of intermission and the Gators were on their way to a 43-point half.

The game was tied at 45 with just under nine minutes left when Frazier hit back-to-back-to-back treys to break the deadlock and allow Florida to start pulling away. The UF defense, meanwhile, held Mizzou (16-6, 4-5) to 36.7-percent shooting in the second half and just 4-for-13 from long range.

“They made shots and we didn’t. That’s pretty much it,” said Brown, who led the SEC at 23.6 points per game in league play, but finished with 15 points. “I don’t know what else to say. We got some good looks, but just didn’t make the shots.”

The UM guard trio of Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross came into the game as the highest scoring backcourt trio in the nation, accounting for more than 70 percent of the team’s offense. They combined to go 11-for-35 overall, 6-for-17 from the arc.

“I think we did an OK job on them, but we could have done better,” said Wilbekin, who went 13-for-16 from the free line, including seven of eight in the final 2:24. “They’re great players and when we let them get loose a couple times they capitalized on our mistakes.”

Didn’t happen nearly enough, though. Mizzou, which was 15-0 when leading at the half coming in, became the fourth straight SEC opponent the Gators held to their season low point total.

“It was one of those games where we had to show some fight and resiliency,” Donovan said. “We were much more balanced in the second half and it was good to see our guys go through that struggle and find a way to win.”

They did with the new guy, too. Whatever distractions his debut presented, they are over. Walker is no longer an unknown novelty, but an intriguing piece to an evolving UF puzzle.

“I’m glad to finally have it all behind me,” Walker said. “My coaches and teammates have kept me motivated and told me to just let it go. That’s what I did.”

Nice introduction. Desired result.


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