On what could turn out to be the biggest game of the season for the Florida Gators, the littlest Gator saved the day for Billy Donovan’s team against Vanderbilt Saturday at the O’Connell Center.
With just under four minutes remaining in the game, the Gators were turning the ball over on offense, had been beaten down the floor on fast breaks and were exhibiting major lapses in judgment, such as fouling a shooter on a 3-point shot. Add in an off-game by Nick Calathes and Vanderbilt dominating Florida down low, and it had all the makings of another setback for the Gators, who had lost three of their previous five games.
However, 5-8 freshman Erving Walker was able to put those fears to rest, scoring 13 of his 17 points in the second half as the Gators held on for an important 82-68 Southeastern Conference victory
As Vanderbilt (16-10, 5-7 SEC East) fought back from a 17-point halftime deficit, Walker was consistently able to answer back with big shots for Florida (21-6, 8-4 SEC East). He finished 5-of-8 from the field, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, to lead five Gators in double figures with 17 points.
Nothing seemed to bother Walker, who hit a clutch 3-point dagger over 6-11 Vanderbilt big man A.J. Ogilvy.
“The coaches always told me to shoot the ball with confidence,” said Walker, who buried a 3-pointer with 2:46 remaining and Florida leading by just 12 points, 72-60. “Those two possessions I had it open so I tried to take advantage and had good looks.”
This was Walker’s fourth time scoring in double digits in the last five games. He was one point off of his career high of 18 points, which he had against South Carolina. In 26 minutes, Walker not only had 17 points but he added four assists as well as did Calathes, who had 14 points. Walter Hodge scored 12, Dan Werner 11 and Alex Tyus 10 for the Gators.
The key to his success, said Walker, is his acclimation to the college game. He said it has been much tougher than the games of street ball he played back home in Brooklyn.
“I always have had a lot of confidence in myself,” Walker said. “Coming from high school to college I didn’t know what to expect. This has been tougher. This is big bodies, guys practicing every day, scouts … Everybody knows what you’re doing so it’s harder to execute.”
Donovan said Walker has been a pleasant surprise for the Gators.
“I’ve got to be honest with you,” Donovan said. “I was concerned as a coach recruiting a guy that small. The first time I met him I hadn’t watched him play and I was like ‘Oh, my gosh, my 7-year-old daughter could post him up.’ What am I going to do here?”
Walker has been the biggest freshman contributor this season. He leads all freshmen in points, minutes and 3-pointers. He is second only to Calathes in 3-point percentage, having knocked down 41 percent of his shots from behind the 3-point line.
For Donovan, the risk has paid off very well and he expects Walker to be around for a while.
“He’s got a lot of those qualities, those winning qualities,” Donovan said. “He’s a winner and he understands how to win games. I’ve got confidence in him.
“There are certain guys who have a surface confidence – they act like they’re confident and they’re not,” Donovan concluded. “Erving has a deep internal confidence. He does not get rattled very much.”
To that, the Commodores will attest.