BASKETBALL: Friendship Endures Despite Hogs'

FAYETTEVILLE — Minutes after his team suffered its worst loss of the season, Florida coach Billy Donovan stood in a hallway in Bud Walton Arena handing out hugs and handshakes to members of John Pelphrey's family.

Somewhere during the conversation, a long hand reached out and touched Donovan's shoulder. The coach looked up and saw Arkansas' coach, and the man whose team had just demolished the Gators 80-61, standing beside him.

And he couldn't have sounded happier to see him.

"Hey pal!" Donovan said to Pelphrey. "Great job!"

If glowing terms like close friend, mentor and soul mate weren't enough to convince you of the tight bond Pelphrey and Donovan share, the brief scene in the back hallway would've been a clincher Saturday. A friendship that was born at Kentucky 20 years ago — when Pelphrey was a player and Donovan was an assistant coach — survived even though Florida was blistered in Bud Walton Arena.

Not that there's any doubt it would, no matter how much Donovan and Pelphrey screamed, yelled, stomped and grumbled up and down their respective sidelines Saturday.

It was the second time the two coaches have faced each other since Pelphrey left Donovan's staff to become South Alabama's coach in 2003. The first was in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, when Donovan's gang beat the Jaguars by 26 points en route to his first national championship.

Pelphrey recalled that game leading up to Saturday's meeting, joking that it was no way to treat a friend.

So was the demolition a little payback for the ultra-competitive coach, who admitted there would be much more emotion than usual because of his ties to Donovan?

Not even close.

"I know how that feels," Pelphrey said. "It's no fun. I actually sent him a text (Saturday) morning saying, ‘This is ridiculous. I'd much rather be in Ireland.'"

Pelphrey was referring to the golf trip he, Donovan and a few friends took over the summer. There's little doubt Donovan would've taken him up on the offer Saturday.

The simple fact is that Pelphrey has a bigger, stronger, deeper and more experienced team than Donovan.

Florida's baby Gators aren't the bunch that rolled to consecutive national titles. All five starters are gone and, as Donovan pointed out, only one player — guard Walter Hodge — had been to Bud Walton Arena before Saturday.

The Hogs pushed the Gators around in the post. They roughed them up on defense. They jumped out to a big lead in front of the home crowd and wouldn't relent.

So chalk up a win for Pelphrey.

That makes the series 1 to 1.

Not that either coach is counting.

"I don't really look at it as, ‘He vs. I,'" Donovan said after the game. "I look at it as Arkansas playing against Florida and their guys certainly played really well (Saturday)."

That's what Donovan told Pelphrey in the hallway after the game, as the two relived a few on-court moments.

Pelphrey mentioned that his team seems to be putting things together, while Donovan believed matching up with a physically imposing team like the Razorbacks will be a good experience for the Gators down the road.

Then, Pelphrey said goodbye as he walked into the media room for his postgame news conference, while Donovan gave Pelphrey's wife, Tracy, a hug and his father, Jack, a handshake before slipping off to Florida's bus.

"It's not easy," Pelphrey told the media about beating his mentor. "You've got to understand how I feel about that guy. I named my daughter after him. He was a huge part of my life as a player. The mentoring that goes on there, the mentoring as a coach, I thoroughly enjoy being around him.

"Yeah, there's a lot of screwed up things to it. But what are we going to do?"

That's easy: Try to beat each other the next time Arkansas and Florida play.

Then, when it's over, meet in a back hallway for another round of hugs and handshakes.

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