Youth is served, Gators win opener

There were 47 seconds left in the game when Marreese Speights dunked on North Dakota State Friday night, significant because it illustrates the difference in the last two years and this brand new year that the Florida Gators are beginning. Speights’ dunk was the very first of the season for the Gators, who spent the last two years in somewhat of a dunking frenzy. There will be fewer high wire acts and fewer slams this year, but that doesn’t mean the Gators won’t be entertaining and it doesn’t mean they won’t be pretty good by the end of the season.

It was the season opener for the Gators at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center and instead of the 0-Fours, all gone to the NBA, this one was about all about youth and inexperience. The Gators were the young team without a senior. Five freshmen, three sophomores and one junior played in Florida’s 75-65 win over the Bison before a crowd of 10,203 in the first round of the Blue Ribbon Challenge. North Dakota State, on the other hand, started four fourth-year juniors and one second year freshman against the Gators, so this was actually a fair test for a first game of the season.

Considering that only Walter Hodge had pretty much all of the Gators’ significant playing experience at the college level, Florida spent a good portion of the game on somewhat of a roller coaster ride. When the young guys were playing well, they played very, very well as they showed in the final six minutes of the second half and the first three minutes of the second half. Florida led by as many as 16 points in the first half (38-22) and by 18 early on in the second (45-27) on scoring spurts led by freshmen. The final 10 points of the first half and four of the first six points of the second half were scored by Florida’s Fab Five freshmen.

When the Gators had a few lapses on the defensive end and most of those caused by youthful inexperience, the veteran North Dakota State team took advantage but never could get closer than six points.  When the game got tight, that’s when Hodge, the only junior on the team, took over, scoring six of Florida’s final eight points, all of them on drives when he snaked through the defense to finish with high arching banked layups off the glass.

“Walter made some really, really explosive finishes at the basket,” said Donovan. “I think the one thing about Walter, even coming over at time outs and things like that, I saw a tremendous passion out of him. I thought he tried to take over a leadership role with our guys today. I was really encouraged to see that because some of these guys don’t know who to turn to. They’re listening to me but I’m not out there.

“On the floor, I think Walt did a real good job tonight and made some plays, some big plays that helped us get a victory.”

Hodge finished the night with 15 points, hitting 7-11 of his shots from the field and 1-2 from the three-point line. He also helped out with four rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals.

Donovan was encouraged by the way the Gators held on against a veteran team that didn’t lose a game by more than nine points last season even though they played in some hostile environments. The Bison finished 20-8 last season, beating Marquette on the road while losing by four at Texas Tech and seven at Iowa.

“They are a really, really good basketball team that’s older, physical and tough,” said Donovan. “Even when we got ahead by 15,16, 17, I never got comfortable just because of their disposition and the way they were carrying themselves. You knew they were going to make a run.”

The Bison did make a run behind fourth-year juniors Brett Winkelman, Ben Woodside and Mike Nelson. All three averaged more than 15.5 points per game last year. In their first action of the 2007-08 season, Nelson scored 17 points while Woodside and Winkelman scored 16 each.

Down 45-27, North Dakota State got back in the game with a 15-4 run over a three minute span. Nelson scored six, Winkelman four and Woodside three to get their team back in it. Nelson got a steal and flipped the ball ahead to Winkelman for a layup to bring the Bison back to within striking distance at 50-42.

This was a chance for Florida to fold, especially with three and four freshmen on the floor at a time. The Gators bent several times but they didn’t break. Freshman Adam Allen delivered a couple of good-looking threes. Freshman point guard Jai Lucas got four points taking the ball to the rack and freshman Nick Calathes got four points on a couple of driving layups.

The way the young guys played was encouraging for Donovan.

“I was really impressed with our guys maturity level that they focused in on the things that we talked about the last three days in getting ready to play this team and I thought that was a good thing,” said Donovan.

Although they made their share of mistakes, as young guys will do, the fact that they played with plenty of effort and intensity was a real plus. Donovan also liked the fact that when the game was on the line, the young players didn’t get rattled and they did what it took to win.

“So many things I think sometimes you take for granted but the fact that they battled and they fought and they found a way to win the game at the end was very good,” said Donovan.

Calathes led the Gators with 21 points, three assists and two steals. The two-time Florida Mr. Basketball hit 8-15 from the field, 1-2 on three-pointers and he was 4-5 from the foul line.

Lucas finished with eight points, four rebounds, four assists and a steal. Allen had seven points.

Florida’s other two freshmen, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus, made their most significant contributions in the first half. Parsons drilled a pair of three-pointers during a 15-0 first half run that saw the Gators go from a 10-4 deficit to a 19-10 lead. Parsons also had three rebounds and a steal. Tyus added a pair of strong finishes around the rim to score all four of his points in the first half.

Disappointing was the play of Speights, who had a quiet 10 points and eight rebounds. Donovan thought Speights never got into the flow of the game even though he had some physical advantages that should have led to much better production.

“I thought Marreese, to be quite honest, could have really dominated the glass a lot more. There were a lot of rebounds that he didn’t block out correctly and guys without a lot of size pushed him. He ends up getting eight rebounds, but this should a game, in my opinion, especially when we got up and held them … the defense wasn’t great in the second half and they shot 43 percent. There was enough up there that he could have grabbed a lot of rebounds and there were some through his hands.

“I thought our smaller people battled. I thought Dan Werner battled. I thought Adam Allen battled. I thought Nick battled. Chandler tried. We had some of those guys battling. Marreese needs to make more impact. He got eight and with our size and lack of strength there — we got outrebounded by one; they had 14 offensive rebounds which is too much — but Marreese could have grabbed another four or five and could have had a 12-13 game rebounding.”

Donovan was particularly pleased with the way that sophomore Dan Werner played. Werner only scored four points, but he grabbed seven rebounds to go with two assists and two steals.

“I know there has been a lot of talk with Dan and his shooting and everything else,” said Donovan. “He hasn’t shot the ball well and he didn’t take a lot of shots tonight but he made a lot of plays that probably are not going to show up on the stat sheet.

“He was really honed in. Defensively is where he made the biggest impact. He was really helping. He really bailed out our young guys so many times where our young guys were out of position but because Dan was there to provide help and cover up on the backside, we got away with a couple of situations because of his understanding and savvy. He got in there and rebounded — he grabbed seven rebounds — and he was physical tonight. He didn’t have a great scoring night but he was physical and he had great energy.”

The win was number 297 of Donovan’s career. He gets a chance at 298 Sunday at 3 p.m. when the Gators play host to Tennessee Tech in the second game of the Blue Ribbon Challenge. Tennessee Tech lost its first game of the tournament to Rutgers, 70-64.

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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.