Walker brings energy to Gators

It would've taken a dunk from the three-point line for freshman forward Chris Walker to live up to the hype. As the Gators kept winning this season with Walker sidelined, the legend of the freshman continued to grow. The NCAA cleared him to make his collegiate debut on Tuesday night, and Walker treated the crowd to two highlight dunks.

The box score only showed seven minutes of action, but the fanfare that came with it made it seem like so much more than that. From the minute No. 3 Florida took the floor for warm ups, the O'Connell Center had a special buzz to it on Tuesday. There was an extra energy with the arrival of the freshman Florida fans had been waiting to see.

His every moved was cheered. Florida big men warmed up with their normal routine, eventually calling for them to work on offensive rebounds and put backs. When it was Walker's turn, the freshman caught a one-handed rebound and dunked it with ease, causing the entire student section to erupt.

After "Free Chris Walker" t-shirts and chants for every home game since Walker enrolled at Florida, the freshman was finally able to play in front of the fan base he feels so close to after all that has happened.

"They let you know that Florida has one of the best fan bases in the country," Walker said. "They're here to support their players."

Over eight minutes into the first half, Florida coach Billy Donovan made his way down to the end of the bench and tapped Walker into the game. The freshman didn't make it five steps from his seat before a standing ovation began to form around the O'Connell Center in the middle of a Florida possession.

A Missouri foul sent the game into a media timeout, but after the break for a commercial, Walker was on the floor for the first time in his career. Through all the mental hurdles, he had a surreal moment before taking the court.

"Dang Chris, you're about to step on this court and play for the Florida Gators," Walker recalled thinking. "It's not high school anymore. This is real."

He didn't waste time making an impact.

On his second defensive possession, Walker swatted a shot to bring the crowd back to its feet. He added another one two minutes later, showing off his length and shot blocking that gives the Florida roster something it hasn't had before his arrival.

Walker was all smiles after the game

After a quick breather, it was back in to close out the first half. And Walker didn't disappoint. He slipped open near the basket with just over two minutes remaining and made eye contact with point guard Kasey Hill. Nothing needed to be said or signaled. The ball went in the air towards the basket and Walker flushed it.

On the final offensive play of the first half, the Gators again used a Hill-to-Walker alley oop to bring the crowd to its feet.

His first four points all came on dunks, sending the O'Connell Center into a frenzy. But for Hill and Walker, what happened on Tuesday was nothing new. They've been doing it for years on the AAU circuit.

"If I'm open, he knows to throw it up," Walker said. "I'll go get it."

And he did. Twice.

The night ended for Walker with seven minutes of action, scoring four points on 2-2 shooting from the field. He chipped in with two blocks and two rebounds, but the most positive outcome for the Florida coaches was that their prized freshman didn't show any negatives on the court.

"I'm excited he was able to finally play," Donovan said. "You can see the things I've talked about in terms of his running and athleticism. He contributed very positively with the seven minutes he played. I was proud of him because I didn't know what to expect. Here's a kid that missed so much, hasn't really gone through the normal progression as a freshman. His attitude has been great. I was proud of his temperament and demeanor."

And most importantly for Donovan, Walker left with a smile on his face. The coach's fear was that the enormous expectations would leave Walker frustrated, feeling inadequate to meet the level fans expected. He showcased two highlight dunks and gave everyone a taste of what he can do.

"I don't know if you can ask for anything better," senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said of Walker.

Wilbekin's opinion is shared throughout the four-man senior class. They've rallied around Walker throughout his troubles with the NCAA and celebrated with the freshman when he was cleared to play.

It's that selflessness from the seniors that makes Donovan love this team. It wouldn't be that way at many schools across the country.

"Our older guys, they have been unbelievable with him," Donovan said. "When you inject a talented player into a team this late, guys can start looking around saying, ‘how's this going to work for me?' They were never like that. They embraced him with open arms. They respect how hard he worked academically to get qualified and stuff he had to go through with the NCAA. Our guys showed some real maturity and unselfishness that they went out of their way to try and help Chris."

The Gators remain unsure about what Walker's role will be, but he showed on Tuesday that he could help the team. And in the end, that's all he wanted.

"I'm so glad to finally have it behind me," Walker said. "My coaches and teammates have kept me motivated. All I want to do is play my role and do whatever I have to to help the team win."

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