Freshmen steal show in home opener for Gators

It was the basketball season opener for the Florida Gators Tuesday night at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, and as expected, Florida Atlantic failed to offer much in the way of resistance to Billy Donovan's number twenty-three ranked team. That Florida would win and win big was a foregone conclusion, but in the course of doubling up the Owls of the Atlantic Sun Conference, 90-45, the Gators showed the kind of consistent energy and intensity that offers rays of hope for the future.

In Florida's disappointing end to last year's 20-11 season, the Gators often were out-toughed and outhustled on both ends of the floor. Though Florida made a valiant run to the SEC championship game, there were far too many nights when the Gators efforts were less than inspired.

Enter this year's freshman class and it's five members, only one of which was a McDonald's All-America (starting forward Corey Brewer). They're without the hype and buildup of some of the previous freshman groups brought in by Donovan, but in exhibition games and the season opener last Friday night in Jacksonville, they've shown that they could be a very special freshman class.

"These guys will mature physically with their bodies, but there is a level of mental toughness about them," said Donovan of his group of youngsters who combined for 30 points, 16 rebounds, 13 assists, four blocked shots and five steals. "They're fighters. They compete. They live in the moment.

"They're not the most talented class or the best freshmen and only one of them (Brewer) was a McDonald's All-American but this is a very, very good freshman class. I have no problem putting them in the game because I know they will play hard and they will stay focused. These guys seem to fight back and play aggressive."

Leading the way for the freshmen were Joakim Noah with 11 points and nine rebounds in ten minutes of play, Taurean Green with eight points and eight assists, and Brewer with seven points, three assists and two steals.

"Those guys add something to our practices that we haven't had," said Donovan. "They've added a tremendous level of competition. I think I owe it to them that when they compete like they do (in practice) they deserve to get playing time. I don't think they think they deserve to get 30 minutes a night, but they certainly expect an opportunity to play.

"And the thing that's great about it, a guy like Anthony Roberson (junior, leading returning scorer from the past two seasons) goes 1-7 tonight, doesn't have a great shooting night and we still score 90 points. He's got to come back and battle against Taurean Green tomorrow night. Here's a guy like David Lee (senior power forward, 11 points on 5-8 shooting, six rebounds, five assists) who played very, very well and a guy like Joakim Noah plays 11 minutes and he's a rebound away from a double-double. That makes for a very competitive practice tomorrow and I think that teams get better with competition."

Florida got a game high 21 points from junior shooting guard Matt Walsh, who turned in a sensational 7-9 shooting night. Sophomore center Chris Richard chipped in with 11 points and six rebounds.

The Gators had three decisive runs in the first half to put the Owls away. The Gators jumped to a 9-0 lead at the outset of the game with Lee getting the first six points and Brewer adding a three-ball from the left corner. Walsh had eight points including back to back threes in a 15-0 run that saw the Gators expand their lead from 15-11 to 30-11 and Green ignited Florida with five straight points on another 15-0 run near the end of a half that Florida led, 45-19.

The Gators could have put the game on cruise control in the second half, but they maintained their intensity. Donovan got the freshmen in for significant minutes in the second half. Noah, who didn't play in the season opener, played hard at both ends of the court, at one point scoring seven straight points and igniting the fast break off of rebounds. Fellow freshman Al Horford got a couple of blocks on consecutive shots, then came up with the ball, and dribbled out to lead the break.

"Those guys as freshmen in the last four minutes did okay," said Donovan. "I know we had a big lead and the game was never in jeopardy but they were in a college game going up against juniors and seniors. I know it's not Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas, but for their first home game of their college careers, they did great."

Defensively, the Gators held FAU to 28.8 percent shooting for the game and just 3-14 shooting from the three-point arc. Florida outrebounded the Owls 46-34.

"We did not give them catch and shoot opportunities," said Donovan. "They made one three-point shot in the first half when we made a bad choice and we didn't rotate out. Outside of that we didn't give up a three-point shot. We may have given up a couple in the second half. That was very good."

The Gators travel to Providence, Donovan's alma mater, Saturday afternoon.

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