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College basketball

Gators' glory rests at the feet of Bonner

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003


GAINESVILLE -- There are times when they look like an eighth seed, no better.

There are times when they appear confused and chaotic, treating every trip across the midcourt line as if the horn is about to sound, rushing passes, missing dunks. In these moments, it is hard to argue the case of the Florida Gators.

There are times, too, when they look like a fourth seed, and check back next year.

In those moments, you notice how young these Gators are. Yes, you can see how high this player can leap and how fast that player can run. But at such times, they are a team for tomorrow, nothing for the committee to worry about today.

Ah, but in these days of mad, desperate scrambles for NCAA seeding, yes, there are moments when the Gators really do look like a No. 1 seed. Times when they look controlled, commanding.

Usually, such moments arrive whenever Matt Bonner has the ball.

It is as simple as that, really. In such moments, Florida stands a little taller, and it looks a little tougher. Bonner holds the ball, his shoulders square to the basket, and suddenly, the Gators look dangerous. They look smarter, meaner, sharper. He elevates them in the polls, in the standings and on the court. He gives them points, possibilities and a prayer.

So is Florida really a No. 1 seed?

Depends. But if I'm Billy Donovan, the Gators coach, I'm sending Bonner in to talk to the committee. Just in case.

The consensus is the Gators slipped to a No. 2 seed after their 69-67 loss to Kentucky on Saturday. It was Florida's second straight loss, and the team is 3-4 in its past seven. The Gators would have to have a good SEC tournament, and Bonner would have to have a healthy one, to get a No. 1.

Bonner at least gave his team hope that could happen. Playing on a painful right foot, he almost willed his Gators back into the game. He scored 25, 15 in the second half. If there had been any doubt about his value to his team, it was erased.

It hurt, okay? Bonner has plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the tendon that runs from the heel to the toes, on his right foot. That's painful enough for most people. But when you consider Bonner has a lot more plantar fascia than most -- he wears a size 17 shoe -- and spends a lot of time running and hopping on it, it is of particular annoyance.

"There were three or four times when I planted on it and stretched out the tendon," Bonner said, "and it felt like someone took a hatchet and just hacked the bottom of my foot. Besides that, it wasn't anything unbearable."

Oh.

The thing is, Bonner had no clue as to how he was going to play, or how often the foot would howl when he jumped or ran on it. There was some discussion he should not play, and Bonner admits that if this had been an early season game, or a nonconference opponent, he would not have.

Instead, he hit 11-of-14, somehow managed seven rebounds, and twice he led the Gators on comeback runs. Better than that, he learned he could live with the pain.

"Great players play with pain," Bonner said. "That's what I wanted to do. I proved to myself that I could play with this thing. I wasn't sure coming in."

Oh, Kentucky players were sure. If someone had left the stupid hatchet in Bonner's foot, he was going to play.

"He was just so tough," Kentucky's Jules Camara said. "He carried his team on his back. They said he was hurt, but he looked good out there."

If you had looked closely, maybe you would have seen Bonner wince here or there. Maybe you would have noticed him limping late in the game. Or maybe you would have noticed him keeping his team's pulse going.

"He's a warrior," Donovan said. "There was one point where he had to come out because of the pain. We're talking about a guy who, as a sophomore, broke his foot and had the bone sticking out of his skin, and he kept playing. He's got a high threshold of pain, and it was bothering him."

Who would have believed it? When Bonner showed up at Florida, a big, slow, clunky redhead with a nice shot, who could have projected him to become this kind of player?

"He had no clue," Donovan said, grinning. "He was this big, goofy kid who had no idea what to do. I used to yell at him all the time. I'd tell him I didn't know how he could be an A student, because on the court, he was a D student. Look at what that kid has done. He's drained every ounce of talent out of that body."

For a basketball player, there is no higher compliment. With Bonner, there are no wasted points or missed moments to regret.

It was never more evident than in the final six minutes of Saturday's game. Down by 10, Bonner scored seven of his team's nine points to close within one with 58 seconds left.

The Gators got the ball back, and they tried mightily to get it in Bonner's hands. He got the ball in the corner and tried to cut to drive to the middle, and the foot howled. He had to pass and never touched the ball again.

Where should Florida be rated?

Depends. Who has the ball?

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