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UF's small center comes up big

Behaving like the Energizer Bunny, David Lee sparks the team with a career-high 23 points.

By JOHN SCHWARB, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

TAMPA -- Two outstanding freshmen have claimed much of the attention this season for Florida, but Friday a sophomore became the catalyst.

David Lee, a true forward filling the Gators' void at center, scored a career-high 23 to lead Florida to an 85-55 NCAA Tournament opening-round win over Sam Houston State.

"I thought David Lee's performance on the interior was terrific. He did a great job both scoring and rebounding," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Lee added six rebounds and three assists on what was a night of redemption of sorts for him and the entire team. The No. 2-seeded Gators came in off three consecutive losses, and in the last one, a disappointing first-round exit from the Southeastern Conference tournament at the hands of LSU, Lee played less than half the game while plagued with foul trouble.

Against the Bearkats, he immediately erased those memories, scoring nine points in the first 5 minutes, 16 seconds.

"It was very big, that was my focus going out there," Lee said with a laugh. "I wanted to play hard and play good defense, but at the same time it's tough when I have foul trouble to get back into the flow of the game."

Lee clearly was into the flow, flexing his muscles after an inside basket that led to a 3-point play and Florida's first lead at 7-5. At the end of the first half after a dunk that helped extend the Gators lead, he grinned widely.

"That was just energy, we're trying to bring a lot more," Lee said. "In the last week we've had highly energetic, competitive practices. It would be a waste if we did that in practice and didn't carry it over to the game.

"When we play with energy it really gets us a lot more hustle plays and a lot more rebounds."

Yet not everyone was convinced of the team's hopes while playing a 6-foot-9 center who has been learning the position for only a year.

Lee said the team watched a tournament preview on ESPN and listened to former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps question the Gators' inside mettle. For one night at least, the questions were answered.

Lee, a St. Louis, Mo., native, played in all 31 games for Florida as a reserve, averaging 7.0 points and 4.7 rebounds. This year he was moved to the center spot and has progressively gotten more comfortable, averaging 10.7 points and 6.9 rebounds.

Donovan has seen the difference, enough to trust the rest of the team's postseason run to a sophomore in the paint.

"A year ago today, there's not even a comparison," Donovan said. "He had his eyes opened to how much better he needed to get. He worked very hard in the offseason and has played very well for us."

With freshmen Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson excelling, the latter claiming conference freshman of the year honors, Lee has been able to continue his development in relative obscurity.

Now the success is starting to show on the national stage.

"I think I've continued to get better, it's just a product of playing with some good players around me and getting some easy buckets now and then," Lee said. "I think good things have happened from hard work."

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