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Monday March 3, 2014In Reserve: DeVon Walker Finds His Stroke -- and His Niche

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- DeVon Walker was leaving. Done well. So done, in fact, the Florida basketball team announced last May 6 that Walker had been given his release and was transferring.

A week later, Walker announced he was staying.

Obviously, Walker had a lot of things spinning in his head last spring. On Sunday, he shook his head thinking back to that time of his life when he nearly made the mistake of his life.

“I went through some stuff last year when all I cared about was getting on the court,” Walker said. “It’s different now.”

Not just because the 6-foot-6, 197-pound sophomore guard has become a reliable player making key contributions from the bench -- and bombing 3-point shots during a current red-hot streak -- but because that spinning head is now screwed on straight; his basketball priorities are in order.

“He’s getting better and better,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “I have confidence in him.”

In Saturday’s lopsided win over LSU, Walker hit a couple 3s and had a steal in 11 quality minutes, delivering for a Gators bench that outscored the Tigers’ subs 28-2. Donovan and his staff can only hope there’s more such productivity on the way this month, starting Tuesday night when top-ranked Florida (27-2, 16-0), winner of 21 straight, takes on South Carolina (11-18, 4-12) at Colonial Life Arena in the final regular season road game of the year.

“I can’t really explain it, but when we’re in the game it just feels like there’s a flow,” Walker said of his time with the backups. “We always try to focus on not letting the energy drop off. Maybe it’s because we feel so connected that it doesn’t matter if we're reserves or starters; we just play off each other.”

Whatever the case, it’s worked of late.

Backup forward/center Dorian Finney-Smith has broken from his 3-point shooting funk and has led the Gators in scoring the last two games. Reserve point guard Kasey Hill is back after missing three games with a groin strain and had team-best five assists against LSU. Late-arriving center Chris Walker worked 14 minutes vs. the Tigers, pulled six rebounds and blocked two shots.

And then there’s the other Walker, the one who goes by “DeVo.” All he’s done is hit 10 of his last 17 shots from long distance (58.8 percent) over the previous seven games. All but one of those games was decided by 10 points or less -- and three by five or less -- so clearly his makes have been timely.

To Florida fans, Walker's run of baskets may seem like a windfall after watching him make just eight of his first 35 shots from deep (22.8 percent). Inside the walls of the Gators basketball complex, they knew differently.

“We knew what he could do because we see him do it every day in practice,” senior forward Casey Prather said.

Walker lets the 3s fly at practice, but it took him more than half the season to get to where he was launching with a clear head in games.

Then came Tennessee. On the road.

Walker made a 3-point shot in both halves, including a big one midway through the second with the Gators up just two and his team teetering. Talk about a productive eight minutes.

“That’s the game I kind of just relaxed and played,” he said. “I got everything out of my head -- any negative thoughts -- and have just tried to play like that every time out; like I’m playing for the guys in the practice facility ... and nobody else.”

He hit two more 3-pointers against Auburn, two against Ole Miss, two more at Vandy and another pair against LSU. Roll in some really sound perimeter defense, plus five steals during the stretch, and Walker is executing the part of a consummate role player. His minutes have fluctuated, based on situations (5 at Kentucky, 19 at Vandy), but Walker hasn't cared. He's just been ready when called upon. 

"As long as we're winning," he said.

It's a drastically different role than the one Walker had to open the season. He started the first seven games (even played 32 minutes against Middle Tennessee) while UF was dealing with suspensions and injuries. A foot sprain in late-November was a setback and caused some frustration, but now three months later the Gators have their identity and a full compliment of players. Walker has found his niche among them.

To think, he was this close to being somewhere else.

Instead, he's making 3s and celebrating wins with the No. 1 team in the nation.

“Well, when you put it that way, it sounds crazy,” Walker said. “I’d probably be looking pretty stupid right now, right? But I stayed and I'm glad I did. This is where I’m supposed to be.”


GATORS HOOP SCOOP
No. 1 Florida at South Carolina  

When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.
Records: Florida 27-2 (16-0); South Carolina 11-18 (4-12)
TV: ESPNU (w/Joe Davis and Dino Gaudio)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise)
Game notes: Florida notes; South Carolina notes

THE TIP-OFF

History: Florida leads the all-time series 41-22, with all but 16 of those games played since South Carolina joined the SEC for the 1991-92 season. ... UF is 25-11 vs. USC under Coach Billy Donovan, including five straight wins. The Gators defeated the Gamecocks 74-58 on Jan. 8 at Gainesville, behind 17 points from Scottie Wilbekin and 13 points, seven rebounds from Patric Young.

Pre-game storyline: UF already clinched a second straight SEC championship and enters its second week as the nation’s top-ranked team after fending off Vanderbilt on the road by three points and crushing LSU by 18 at home. The Gators are trying to join Kentucky as the only program since 1957 to go unbeaten during the conference season (the Wildcats did it three times) and the only one to go undefeated in an 18-game schedule. Florida also wants to maintain its hold as a slam-dunk No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gamecocks, meanwhile, shocked Kentucky at home Saturday night and are looking for a second straight signature win for second-year Coach Frank Martin.

About the Gators: After three down-to-the-wire games, the win over LSU might have been their best all-around performance of the season. Not only did the Gators get back to playing excellent defense, holding the Tigers, the highest-scoring team in the SEC, to just 38.3 percent from the floor, but Florida had a monster game from the 3-point line in hitting 13 of 22. Donovan wants to build on that effort, especially on defense, where his team ranks 11th in the SEC (201st in nation) at defending the 3-point line. ... Senior forward Casey Prather (14.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) had a couple tough games back to back in making just four of 15 shots in close wins at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. He got back on track against LSU by going 6-for-7 from the floor. Prather’s field-goal percentage is .613, which leads the SEC. ... After going 5-for-10 from 3-point range against LSU, sophomore guard Michael Frazier II (12.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg) has made 11 of 23 long balls over three games and is at 42.6 percent for the season, which is third in the league. ... So much for that dismal 1-for-23 run from the arc. Sophomore reserve forward Dorian Finney-Smith (9.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) is seven of his last 12 from 3-point range over two games, 11 of his last 21 overall and totaled 35 points in the wins over the Commodores and Tigers.

About the Gamecocks: They lost at home earlier this season to Manhattan and South Carolina Upstate, started the SEC schedule with six straight defeats and were on a three-game losing streak before Saturday night’s 72-67 upset of Kentucky. ... USC leads the conference in 3-point field-goal percentage at 36.8. and is also an excellent offensive rebounding team at 13.4 per game. The Gators do not want the home team getting second-chance opportunities or getting confidence from deep. That’s a recipe for disaster on the road, regardless of any talent or depth discrepancy. ... Senior guard Brenton Williams (15 ppg) leads USC in scoring and hung 24 on UK over the weekend, thanks for a 15-for-16 night from the free-throw line. He’s making 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers, which ranks second in conference play. His backcourt partner, Sindarius Thornwell (13.5, 4.0 rpg), is one of the league’s best freshman and provides matchup issues at 6.5 and the way he goes to the glass. ... The Gamecocks don’t get a lot of scoring from their starting front court, just over 16 points per game, but 6-5 forward Michael Carerra (6.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) will crash the glass on both ends.

Key numbers:

* .818 - Florida’s winning percentage on the road this season, based on a 9-2 record, which is tied with Villanova for tops among teams from a major conference.

* 8 - Consecutive road victories for the Gators, which is tied for the third-longest in the nation. Only Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin (both with 12) have won more consecutive games on the road.

* 95.3 - Free-throw shooting percentage of USC's Williams, which leads the nation. Williams has made 102 of 107 attempts this season.
 
* 112 - Wins by the 2007 senior class of Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard, which ranks ranks second all-time in Florida history. The ’14 senior class, with 111 wins, needs one win to move into a tie for second.

* 2010 - Jan. 26 of that year, to be exact. That’s the last time South Carolina defeated a team ranked No. 1 in the nation. The victim was Kentucky by a 68-62 count.

Watch for it: South Carolina will be a very confident team to start the game and come at the Gators hard from the opening tip to try and establish a physical tone the likes of which UF is more than willing to play in. How physical? In USC’s last two games, a total of 108 fouls have been called, which speaks to the way Martin likes to play. And UF does get into a fouling-shooting contest, the Gators would do well to avoid the basically automatic Williams.

 

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