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Former UF captain Clifford Lett joins celebration when Gators returned home as SEC champions.

Saturday March 1, 2014'They Were the First:' Current SEC Champion Gators Welcome Back 1988-89 SEC Champs for LSU Game

Former UF captain Clifford Lett joins celebration when Gators returned home as SEC champions.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- His two young sons had seen pictures and heard stories of how their father, back in the day, played at the University of Florida. Such conversations had come up when Renaldo Garcia took his family to, say, a Gators football game.

In fact, the Garcias went to a game a few years ago at Florida Field when oldest son R.J. got bug-eyed at the sight of another former UF athlete, a fella named Percy Harvin, who was surrounded by fans, signing autographs and taking pictures.

That’s when R.J., 7 years old at the time, turned to his father -- who was surrounded by exactly no one -- with a curious look.

Dad, didn’t you play at Florida, too?

Garcia laughed telling the story earlier this week.

“It’s kind of tough to explain to your kids when they’re that young,” he said. “But it really wasn’t that long ago.”

Renaldo Garcia It was exactly 25 years ago today, in fact, that Garcia (right) and the rest of UF’s 1988-89 basketball team beat LSU on the road and clinched a share of the program’s first Southeastern Conference title in the team’s 55-year association with the league. It was a stunning achievement for a program that was headed for just its third NCAA Tournament all time.

“It was the first one and it was a big, big deal,” UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “It set a tone and made a statement that, yes, championships could be won in basketball here at the University of Florida.”

A few have been won here since, including one this week. So maybe it’s fitting that a quarter-century later to the day, the No. 1-ranked Gators (26-2, 15-0) -- riding a school-record 20-game victory streak and now one of the preeminent programs in the country -- will take on LSU (17-10, 8-7) in a nationally televised game Saturday at 4 p.m., before a sold-out, adoring home crowd at the O’Connell Center.

Players, coaches, managers and support staff who were part of that history-making squad have been invited back for a reunion this weekend. Garcia, Clifford Lett, Livingston Chatman and the parents of the late Dwayne Schintzius, who died of a rare form of leukemia in 2012, will be among those taking a collective bow at halftime of the game.

The widow of Norm Sloan, the head coach of that ’88-89 team who died in 2003 at the age of 77, will not attend. She’ll be in Raleigh, N.C., to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Wolfpack’s 1974 NCAA championship team, also coached by Sloan.

“Obviously, being here at Florida, those names are really familiar to me and I’m happy some of those guys are coming back and that our school is honoring them,” said UF coach Billy Donovan, who 25 years ago was at a career crossroads, working on Wall Street before taking a job as a graduate assistant with new Kentucky coach Rick Pitino later that spring. “What those guys did was really kind of ground-breaking. It proved it could be done.”

That ’88-89 team was anything but a slam-dunk to challenge for a league title. The Gators had been to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years, but had to replace the talented backcourt of NBA-bound Vernon Maxwell and all-time assists leader Ronnie Montgomery.

Livingston Chatman“But we had talent,” recalled Chatman (left), now a social science teacher at Valrico (Fla.) Bloomingdale High and then a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward who’d averaged 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds as a rookie the year before. “And I guess it was our time.”

At center, UF had the 7-2, 265-pound Schintzius, one of the most complete post players in league history, and surrounded him with high-flying Dwayne Davis at power forward, Chatman on the wing, Lett, the steady senior and inspiring leader at point guard, alongside Garcia in the backcourt.

It was a team that was far from perfect (there was adversity, on and off the court) and far from elite (it suffered a bunch of lopsided losses), but one that managed to find its rhythm as a unit and reel off 11 straight SEC wins en route to the title.

Some background:

* Schintzius was suspended for the first four games of the regular season for his part in a fight outside a downtown nightclub. According to reports, the car Schintzius was in was pelted with beer cans and the UF star got out of the vehicle and began flailing away at a couple frat boys with a tennis racquet. More on that later.

* In the first week in December, the Gators lost by 18 at Florida State, by 30 at Illinois and in a rare early SEC opener had a freshman from LSU named Chris Jackson drop 53 on them at the O’Dome.

* Two days after losing the league opener at Ole Miss, the Gators went to Georgia, where Sloan kicked freshman point guard Jose Ramos off the squad for an incident at the team’s shoot-around. The next day, UF learned 6-9 center/forward Jose Portillo had been ruled ineligible by the NCAA.

* After an 83-76 loss at Tennessee on Jan. 18, the Gators were 8-9 overall and 2-4 in the league. A week later, following a home win over Mississippi State, UF went to Vanderbilt for what would turn out to be the wildest, strangest and most unbelievable victory in the school history. Still.

“We were dead in the water,” Garcia remembered. “Then came those tennis balls.”

In the aftermath of Schintzius’ preseason incident, several UF opponents had mocked the Gators big man by throwing tennis balls on the court during games, prompting then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer to issue warnings to member institutions that such behavior would result in an automatic technical foul. Sure enough, officials followed up, calling techs on the crowds earlier in the season at both Georgia and Tennessee for firing the balls onto the floor.

On Jan. 25, Florida trailed Vandy 72-70 and the Gators turned the ball over with one second to play. Game over, right?

That’s when four tennis balls sailed out of the student section and bounced onto the Memorial Gymnasium floor.

Technical foul.

Sloan’s best free-throw shooter on the floor at the time happened to be Schintzius, who stepped to the line and amid the deafening din knocked down a pressure-packed pair and sent the game into overtime.

The Gators won 81-78.

“Whoever was stupid enough to do it, I guess they were trying to be cool,” Schintzius said after finishing with 24 points and 12 rebounds. `”They could say, ‘I hit Dwayne Schintzius with a tennis ball.’ I hope they`re happy because now they can say they cost Vandy the game. Just write that Dwayne Schintzius says, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Commodores coach C.M. Newton had some other things to say.

“This is the toughest loss I've ever been associated with. Whoever did that weren’t Vanderbilt fans. They were two damn yokels who got carried away,” an exasperated Newton railed afterward. “In my opinion, a game should not be decided by outside forces. Our basketball players had done nothing wrong, and the ball-throwing incident --while unfortunate and uncalled for -- had absolutely no bearing on the game at that point.”

Sloan, of course, chimed in.

“Baloney,” he said. “The rule exists and was applied.”

This was how UF radio play-by-play man David Steele, now of the Orlando Magic, signed off the broadcast that night: “Game, set, match, Florida.”

The Gators used this fortuitous event to their advantage. The win was UF’s second straight and the Gators rolled off nine more SEC wins in a row, losing only a midseason non-conference to Stanford along the way.

That 11th win came at LSU’s Maravich Assembly Center, where the Gators got 26 points from Chatman, 24 from Schintzius, a career-high 20 from Garcia  and 16 points and 10 assists from Lett to withstand a 48-point outburst from Jackson, the Tigers incredible freshman. The 104-95 win gave UF a 19-10 overall record and 13-4 mark in the league, assuring no worse than a tie for the SEC crown with Vanderbilt.

Sloan on bench Afterward, Sloan said the achievement was “more gratifying” than his national championship at N.C. State, led by NCAA Player of the Year David Thompson. That team, he said, was supposed to be great.

“I can’t express how I feel,” said Sloan (third from left on UF bench). “I’m as happy as can be.” 

Meanwhile, back in Gainesville, Foley, then UF’s senior associate athletic director, recalled turning off the radio and climbing into bed both in awe and overwhelmed by the accomplishment. It then dawned him.

“Somebody needed to be out at the airport to shake those guys’ hands when they got home,” he said.

The plane was due back in Gainesville at 1:40 a.m., so Foley set his alarm and made the drive out to the private airstrip on the northeast side of town.

When he got to the intersection of 39th Avenue and Waldo Road, he could not believe his eyes.

“It was a mad house,” he said. “Total pandemonium.”

Police estimated a crowd of 3,500 was there to greet the team, with cars parked along both sides of Waldo Road and stretching for a couple miles. So many fans climbed the fence to shout at the players, the fence uprooted and tipped over. Others who climbed on a tin roof to get a better view, well, fell to the ground when the roof caved in.

It was glorious.

“And I went out there because I did not want what had happened to go unnoticed. Well, it did not go unnoticed,” Foley said. “When those guys got off that plane, it was really, really cool. That’s what I remember. The way this town reacted. Because it was the first one.”

Three days later, UF lost by 20 at Alabama, but Vanderbilt was beaten by 17 at Tennessee. The Gators’ first SEC title was theirs outright.

The next one would come three coaches and 11 years later, in Donovan’s fourth season.

Now the program stands toe to toe with the best in the nation, thanks to a head coach who also saw incredible possibilities on the UF hardwood.

“They’re on a whole new level in terms of their expectations, in terms of what they’ve been able to accomplish,” said Garcia, now a teacher and basketball coach at Tampa Sickles High School. “It makes you so proud, not only to see what Coach Donovan has been able to do, but the first-class way he’s done it and been able to do it whether he has guys leaving early for the NBA or staying around like those four seniors he has now.”

On Tuesday night, the current Gators clinched a share of their seventh all-time SEC title, and with Thursday’s loss by Kentucky won the crown outright, their fifth, including a third over the last four years. In a league with basketball blue blood Kentucky, it’s a remarkable record.

Chatman agreed, but with one caveat.

“What Billy Donovan has done is great, but I have to be honest with you -- that’s what I envisioned for Florida when I went there,” Chatman said. “I always felt it was a great school, always felt it was capable of great things in basketball. I wanted to be a part of it.”

They all were a part of it. A very important part.

They were the firsts.

“We understood that being in Gainesville we were basically in a football-first situation, but we also knew what we were doing was special at the time and the reaction of all the fans and the student body was awesome,” Garcia said. “I guess I’d like to think we did something to help get the ball rolling.”

You can definitely could say that.

Memo to R.G. Garcia: Yes, young man, your dad did play at Florida. And what he and his teammates did will never be forgotten.

No. 1 Florida vs LSU

When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla. (the game is sold out) 
Records: Florida 26-2 (15-0); LSU 17-10 (8-7) 
TV: CBS (w/Verne Lunquist and Bill Raftery)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; LSU notes


History: First meeting between the two teams this season. LSU is up in the all-time series 60-42, but the Gators are 13-8 vs. the Tigers under Coach Billy Donovan, including five straight wins. The two last met March 15, 2013 in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, with UF winning 80-58 in Nashville, Tenn., behind a career night from Erik Murphy (27 points, 12 rebounds).

Pre-game storyline: After rising to No. 1 in both major polls for the fifth time in school history, the Gators defended the ranking Tuesday night at Vanderbilt, where they clinched a share of a third Southeastern Conference regular-season championship in four years. The title became all theirs Thursday night when second-place Kentucky lost at home to Arkansas. Now, the only really drama remaining in the SEC is whether Florida can join UK as the only programs since 1957 to complete a conference season unbeaten. With the SEC expanding from 12 to 14 teams in 2013, UF needs to win its remaining three league games to become the first program in college hoops history to go 18-0 in a conference season.

About the Gators: They get back reserve Kasey Hill (5.6 ppg, 3.1 apg) after the freshman point guard missed the past three games with a groin strain suffered Feb. 15 at Kentucky. ... Florida remains the SEC leader in scoring defense (58.6 ppg) and scoring margin (plus-12.2), but the Gators have allowed 48-percent shooting from the floor and 42.1 from the 3-point line over the last five games. The long-distance defense is particularly concerning because that’s where lesser teams can cause the most problems. ... Offensively, UF has hit 70 points only three times the last 12 games, but twice in the last three. Another cold-shooting showing like the 57-point effort in that 57-54 win at Vandy is flirting with trouble. ... Florida’s last three wins have been decided by 5, 4 and 3 points, respectively. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13.5 ppg, 3.9 apg) did not have one of his best overall outings Tuesday (7 points, 5 assists), but the return of Hill should provide him with some time to catch his breath on the bench as well as take possessions at the off-guard spot. ... Senior center Patric Young (10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is playing the finest all-around basketball of his career. Though Wilbekin remains one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the nation, Young is the heart of the UF defense with the way he is fundamentally sound in the post, plays traffic cop with his communication in the middle, switches on pick and rolls, and changes ends. ... It’ll be interesting to see what backup forward/center Dorian Finney-Smith (9.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg) has to offer after breaking free of a horrific shooting slump with 19 points and 9 rebounds at Vandy. “Doe-Doe,” who had made just one of his previous 23 shots from 3-point range going to Nashville, went 3-for-6 vs. the Commodores, including a money-ball make with 30.6 seconds to go to help seal the win.

About the Tigers: LSU has an RPI of 67, meaning the Tigers are in a small cluster of SEC teams on the NCAA bubble and thus need the brownie points a win over No. 1 would provide (especially a win on the road). ... On paper, they are the second-most talented team in the SEC, behind only Kentucky. The UF coaches even say so. LSU has two likely NBA players in the front court, which is why it ranks first in the league in defensive rebounding (26.1 pg), third in offensive rebounding (13.8), and sit among the nation’s top 10 in both overall rebounding and blocked shots. ... The Tigers’ scoring average of 77.3 per game is third-best in the conference; their 45.2 shooting percentage is fourth. ... What the Gators need to do defensively is get the game to their pace, speed things up, and make a unit that turns it over 14.2 times a game (second-worst in SEC) play faster than it wants. ... LSU has won two of its last three, the lone loss coming at Kentucky on a Julius Randle putback with three seconds to go. The Tigers beat the Wildcats earlier in the season 87-82 at Baton Rouge. ... If the beastly post duo of 6-9, 255-pound junior Johnny O’Bryant (15.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and 6-8, 220-pound freshman Jordan Mickey (13.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) establish themselves and get things going down low, UF will have another down-to-the-wire game on its hands. Both were O’Bryant and Mickey were McDonald’s All-Americans. ... Guards Andre Stringer (10.9 ppg) and Anthony Hickey (9.3 ppg, 3.8 apg), both upperclassmen, have made at least 50 shots from 3-point range this season. When they’re on, that makes O’Bryant and Mickey even stronger in the post.

Key numbers:

* .176 - LSU’s winning percentage against No. 1 teams. The Tigers are 3-14 in those games, with the last win coming against Duke in the Sweet 16 round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament en route to their last Final Four appearances.

* .761 - Florida’s winning percentage as a No. 1 team (thanks to a 16-5 mark) in its five different times (1 week in ’02-03, 1 week in ’03-04, 3 weeks in ’06-7, another 5 weeks in ’06-07 and now 1 week in ’13-14) atop the poll.

* 7 - Number of SEC championships won by the Gators. That now ranks is a tie with Alabama for fourth in the league, behind Kentucky (45), Tennessee (10) and LSU (9). Donovan is responsible for six of them.

* 8 - DeVon Walker 3-pointers over the last six games. In fact, he’s 8-for-14 -- that’s 57 percent -- after making just 8 (on 35) attempts -- over his first 25 games.

* 16 - Years since another SEC team won three outright league titles over four years. Kentucky did it in 1995, ’96 and ’98. 

Watch for it: LSU will have a significant size advantage up front, which means freshman center/forward Chris Walker is almost sure to get his most significant playing time of the season. That may sound iffy after he’s averaged barely three minutes per game since logging seven in his much-anticipated debut against Missouri seven games ago (and just one minute at Vanderbilt). But the Tigers will play mostly zone on defense, which means he can float around and duck in the lane. LSU is not overly complicated with offensive sets, either, meaning he’ll mostly be asked to post defend or post trap off pick and rolls. Basic staff.


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