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Plenty of fight left in Gators

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003


GAINESVILLE -- In retrospect, you might suggest they were cheated.

After all, this was supposed to be Florida's moment. The basketball team's 15 minutes of fame. And just how badly were the Gators shortchanged? They managed, oh, about 12 minutes with Kentucky before embarrassing themselves.

So, by the end of this day, the Gators no longer will be considered the nation's best. One week after topping college basketball's polls for the first time, Florida is expected to slip into a less sexy number.

And you know what?

They are a better team today than last Monday.

Go ahead and chuckle. Chortle, if you must. But understand growth is measured not by a number in a poll, but by the strength of one's soul. And these Gators did some heavy lifting during the weekend.

It was not just that they disposed of No. 22 Alabama on Saturday afternoon, although every victory is important now that NCAA seeds are nearing. No, the greater triumph was the way the Gators responded to the Kentucky humiliation.

"Adversity happens to every team," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "To me, the good teams are the ones who can take setbacks and adversity when you have a loss, and be able to come right back."

Donovan knows this to be true because he had a team last season that proved it the hard way.

Remember those Gators? No. 2 in the polls in late January? They were 15-1 and trading quips with Dick Vitale. Then came a loss to Georgia. And another against Arkansas. And then Kentucky. A UF team supposedly heading to the Final Four lost more games than it won the rest of the season.

They said that team lacked heart. It lacked passion and chemistry. The coach was unhappy with some players, and some players were unhappy with UF.

A week before last season's NCAA Tournament, Donovan essentially called his team gutless. As if out of spite, the players proved him right.

They ended the season with a double overtime loss to Creighton in the first round of the tournament, even though the Gators were in position to nail down a victory at three different buzzers.

This is why Tuesday's loss to Kentucky seemed larger than one game. It was a similar time to the beginning of last season's collapse and the Gators were in a similar position in the polls.

On Saturday, this team proved it was different. Perhaps, even, the antithesis of last season. Instead of crumbling, these Gators will get better.

"Hopefully the things that happen throughout the course of the year put your basketball team on edge," Donovan said. "It gets them focused."

Like he did at times last season, Donovan challenged his team. He had them watch the Kentucky tape at 6 a.m. Thursday morning.

Then, when they seemed sluggish at that afternoon's practice, he threatened to bring them back for another two-hour session Thursday night.

He was looking for a certain intensity. A sign that this team was willing to attack instead of waiting for opponents to stumble. By the end of practice, he knew it was there.

On Saturday, Matt Walsh stole the game's first pass, fed Justin Hamilton on the break and the Gators led the rest of the way.

"We needed to be able to move forward. That's a sign of someone of character," Donovan said. "The ability to pick yourself up and not feel sorry for yourself and get back in there and fight and learn from what happened."

What the Gators have learned is they have holes. They can run and they can score, but they are not a great defensive team and are not strong inside. To survive, they will have to be tougher than opponents.

They already have shown signs of this. Consider these numbers: Last season, Florida was 0-5 in games decided by three points or less. This team is 4-1.

The difference is Walsh and fellow freshman Anthony Roberson. The Gators essentially have traded their spots on the floor for James White and Orien Greene, who transferred after last season.

Roberson and Walsh are natural scorers but, even better, have more fight in them than anyone else on the roster.

"Matt Bonner has great toughness, but Matt Bonner's toughness developed over time," Donovan said. "Peep (Roberson) and Matt Walsh have unbelievable toughness at a very, very young age.

"From a competitive standpoint, those two guys are extraordinary. They bring that competitiveness out of Matt and Justin and the other guys."

The Gators no longer are No. 1 and, frankly, do not deserve to be. Certainly not with Kentucky and Arizona in the same hemisphere.

But if the No. 1 ranking was a milestone in school history, the week that followed was a touchstone.

And the Gators showed this is a team with some fight.

A team with a chance to get better.

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