MEN'S HOOPS: The Gators Have Heart! Any Questions?

If you had questions about the heart and the character of this Florida basketball team, you should have all the answers that you need right now. If Sunday's come from behind win at South Carolina doesn't convince you that the Florida Gators are no longer a team in search of a heart, then nothing ever will.

Take a look at Florida's rally in the last 11 minutes of Sunday's game in Columbia. Dissect the play by play. You'll find one Gator after another making a contribution when it counted, but the three faces that will stand out most prominently are David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh. At one point or another back in December and January, Donovan called them out to step it up, to show the way for the younger players on the team. Sunday, when it counted the most, they were the ones leading the way.

David Lee scored four points and managed all of two rebounds in the first half as Florida fell behind 37-27. In the final 11 minutes of the game, he scored five of his 13 points and pulled in seven of his 14 rebounds. His tip-in with 12.6 seconds remaining gave Florida the 66-65 margin of victory.

Roberson had five points at the half. Nine of his 17 points came after South Carolina pulled ahead 57-42 with 11:05 remaining. He scored five straight points with Florida trailing, 60-54, to put the Gators in a position to come all the way back.

Walsh had just six points in the first half and 11 for the game, but it was his three-pointer with 2:39 remaining that gave Florida its first lead since midway through the first half, 62-61, and he calmly hit two free throws with 1:12 remaining to put the Gators ahead, 64-63.

The Big Three contributed in other ways. It wasn't just on the offensive end. In the final 11:05 of the game, the Gators held South Carolina to 2-11 shooting from the field by playing scrambling defense that harassed the Gamecocks shooters into bad shots and turnovers. Florida got to loose balls, got nearly every critical rebound and forced South Carolina's offense into the kind of funk that the Gators were in for three quarters of the game. Nearly every time the Gators came up with a play, Lee, Walsh or Roberson had a hand in it.

When the game mattered the most, the Gators found the will to come up with the biggest plays. That's the sign of a team that has grown up. That's the sign of a team that has decided that games last 40 minutes and it's not over until the last bead of sweat has dropped onto the floor when the last second ticks off the clock.

Back in December when they lost at home to Miami and Louisville, even Billy Donovan wondered if his team had the heart and the will to overcome big obstacles. He challenged his team to dig down deep, to find its pulse and to play with the emotion, the heart and never say die effort that defines team character.

Billy believed all along that the team had it within them, but it takes more than just a coach having faith in his players. For all his faith in his players, for all his belief that they had it in them, the Gators had to find their own tune and decide if they wanted to dance to the music or just listen.

At some point, and only the players can tell you for sure when it happened, they found themselves. Perhaps it was after the Florida State loss when Donovan called out David Lee. Lee's response has been a remarkable run in Southeastern Conference games. He's averaging nearly a double-double in conference play but it's more than the 13 points and 10 rebounds per game he contributes. It's his inspired play on both ends of the court, his hustle, his leadership and his ability to find an extra gear when the Gators need it most that has been the biggest contribution.

Roberson and Walsh have been labeled unfairly by some as ball hogs. It's hard to complain about your top two scorers when both of them are shooting better than 50 percent from the field, especially when they've both shown an ability to knock down big shots when games are on the line. By their own admissions, neither of them will make the all-defensive team but they've stepped up on that end, too. It's not always about making steals or blocking shots. Sometimes it's maintaining your position or blocking out or getting a hand up in someone's face.

The younger players have responded to the leadership of the Big Three. They've played hard and they've meshed in with the upperclassmen. You could easily say this is a team of three stars and a bunch of role players, but it's more than just being a role player for the younger players. It's about knowing the role, being comfortable with the role, and knowing how to be in the right position when there's a chance to make a play.

Down the stretch Sunday, Lee Humphrey came up with a loose ball twice. Corey Brewer got a deflection and an offensive rebound. Al Horford came up with a critical block and then all five Gators wound up on the floor to save the possession for Florida. Adrian Moss, whose minutes are limited because of a bad back, came up with a critical stickback on a missed shot and he created space for Lee to get rebounds twice with big time blockouts.

A year ago, when the Gators were trailing by 15 points with just ten minutes left, there were two chances of a game winning rally: no way and no how.

A year ago, as Lee said last week after the Gators toughed out a very defensive 69-61 victory over Vanderbilt, "if you just watched us on the defensive end, you could probably tell how we were playing on offense." The Gators of a year ago would have gone into a funk over the way things were going on the offensive end of the floor and they would have played matador defense the entire game.

At the 11 minute mark in the game Sunday, the Gators were struggling to make plays either offensively or defensively, but they kept hustling and chipping away. When they finally got the spark they needed, they had the character to finish and win even if winning meant winning ugly. Yes, it was an ugly win, but the fact that it was a win means it was a masterpiece.

The Gators of two months ago might now have had the heart to come all the way back. They might have been content with coming close and showing that they could have won if only a few bounces had gone their way.

That was then. This is now.

They aren't the finesse Gators who can't win the tough ones anymore. They aren't the soft Gators who can get pushed and shoved around until they go into a funk anymore. They aren't the team that needs a few lucky bounces. They get out there and create their own luck with hustle, effort and desire.

This is a team that has found that it not only has a pulse but a heart that beats loud, hard and proud. This is a team that has found the willingness to do whatever it takes to get a win.

They don't just listen to the music anymore. They dance to it.

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