Freshman day! Hill, Walker shine

Senior Day was four weeks ago in Gainesville. Freshman Day was Thursday in Memphis when Kasey Hill and Chris Walker provided that extra spark the #1-ranked Florida Gators (35-2) needed until the seniors got their act together. Hill delivered six points, six rebounds and 10 assists while Walker gave an unexpected boost with seven points, three rebounds and a blocked shot as the #1-ranked Gators punched their ticket to their fourth straight Elite Eight game by knocking off UCLA, 79-68.

Florida will face Dayton, an 82-72 winner over Stanford Thursday night in the other NCAA South Region Sweet 16 game, for the right to move on to the Final Four Saturday (6:09 p.m., TBS).

This has been a season when so much of the focus has gone deservedly to Florida’s Fab Four seniors – Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. But Thursday night it took the seniors awhile to get it cranked up, which meant help had to come from somewhere else. Sophomore Michael Frazier delivered as he has all season with five 3-pointers and a game-high 19 points to go with five rebounds, three assists and a steal. Dorian Finney-Smith, the Southeastern Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, did what he’s been doing with 10 points, six rebounds, four assists, one steal and one blocked shot.

But the freshmen came through and they had to.

Hill had six first half assists and a couple of layups when he blew through the UCLA defense and jackknifed a shot up and in. Hill got two of his assists when he found Frazier open for 3-balls but the best two passes were his slick deliveries to Yeguete on consecutive Florida possessions for easy layups. Hill got into the lane, drew the defense and then made it look all too easy as Yeguete went unchallenged to the rim.

Walker, who didn’t even get to play until the end of January and has been a work in progress ever since, got five of his seven points at the end of the first half when UCLA was trying to pull even going into the locker. He muscled up a shot through a UCLA double team with 3:10 to go to give the Gators a 33-28 lead. With 1:35 remaining he got fouled going to the rim. He knocked down his first  free throw, missed the second but followed his own shot, snagging the rebound and getting to the rim with one giant step for a layup that left the stunned Bruins trailing by six, 36-30.

When the Gators went on a 12-4 run early in the second half that stretched Florida’s lead to 50-39, Hill delivered four assists including one to Walker with 15:50 to go for an easy layup.

In effect, what the two freshmen did was hold the fort until Scottie Wilbekin got it going in the final 7:09. UCLA had cut the Florida lead to one (56-55) at the 10 minute mark and it seemed the Bruins had all the momentum. They had cut 10 points off Florida’s 11-point lead but Hill delivered again, a perfect pass to Finney-Smith on the right baseline that was converted into a bottom of the net jumper that gave the Gators a 3-point lead with 9:47 that stood until Wilbekin came alive.

Wilbekin got the ball to Frazier in the corner for a 3-pointer with 7:09 and then drilled a 3-pointer with 6:12 remaining to stretch Florida’s lead back to eight, 63-55. With 2:35 to go and the Gators up by five, Wilbekin hit an outrageous off-balance shot in the lane to give Florida a 7-point cushion at 70-63.

UCLA never got closer than seven as Florida pulled away for its 29th straight win.

If ever there was a game that personified what Billy Donovan is all about, this was it. UCLA did a terrific job of taking Patric Young out of the game. He scored only four points and had just three rebounds. The Bruins held Prather in check until the final minutes when he sneaked behind everybody for a couple of dunks against the press. Yeguete was steady as ever – eight points, seven rebounds, one steal and one assist – but Wilbekin was a lost ball in the tall grass for a large portion of the game.

It’s no surprise that Wilbekin awakened late and delivered the daggers to UCLA’s heart. He’s been doing that all year. That’s why he’s the SEC Player of the Year and why he is making All-America teams.

But until Wilbekin put on his take over the game hat, someone had to step up and it was the freshmen who got the job done when the Gators needed it the most. What they did is the perfect example of why Donovan has attained true elite status as a coach. He knows his personnel, knows when to use them and gets the most out of his entire roster.

Donovan also knows how to bring his players along. Kasey Hill couldn’t have done what he did Thursday night back on February 1. Back then, Hill was still trying to figure out how to harness his blow by speed and understand when to attack the rim. Even three weeks ago, Chris Walker couldn’t have delivered seven points in a critical game. Walker played only six minutes Thursday night, but they were productive on both ends of the floor.

What Hill, Walker and others did on the offensive end overshadowed another brilliant defensive performance by the Gators. UCLA came into the game averaging 82 points a game but the Bruins were held to 68 points, a full 14 below their season average. Much was made of UCLA’s 6-9 point forward Kyle Anderson, who is a potential triple-double each time he steps on the floor. Anderson had some moments in the game, but his overall numbers – 11 points, nine rebounds and five assists – weren’t exactly overwhelming.

In addition to neutralizing Anderson, the Gators extended the defense to the 3-point line where they came through with a third straight shutdown performance. In their first two NCAA Tournament games, Albany and Pitt combined to hit only 8-30 from the 3-point line. UCLA went 3-18 Thursday night.

When opponents manage only 11-48 from the 3-point line, you don’t lose too often, particularly when you’re finding the range yourself.

Thursday night, the Gators went 8-21 led by Frazier’s 5-8. Again, you don’t lose too many games when you outscore a quality opponent 24-9 from the 3-point line. And you don’t lose too many games when you get great production off the bench to the tune of 23 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists.

For the past several weeks, Florida’s players have been talking about pursuing greatness. The Gators are one step closer to that goal and if they get there it will be because they are a real team in which every single player is capable of delivering when their number is called.

Thursday, Billy Donovan called the numbers of Kasey Hill and Chris Walker and the freshmen came through, proving once again that this Florida team is the sum of all its parts.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.