David Lee of Florida (24), center, goes over the heads of Kentucky's Lukasz Obrzut (10) and Chuck Hayes (44) during the first half in Gainesville, Fla. Sunday, March 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
Azubuike's shot had the look of a game winner, but it hit the side of the rim and it was Walsh who grabbed it, took a dribble to his left and then hurled the ball into the stands to seal Florida's first win over the Wildcats 2001.
Florida won this game, 53-52, Sunday by playing hard defense, rebounding and never giving in to a Kentucky team that kept turning up the heat. For the fourth straight game, the Gators won a game that they would have found a way to lose last year by doing the things that they couldn't do just a year ago.
"I'm not saying we did want to, but we couldn't guard last year," said Donovan. "I'm sorry but that was the makeup of our basketball team. We could not defend."
But this year's team can play defense. They play tight man to man defense and they do it well. Are they the league's best defenders? No, but they aren't bad at all. What they will do is get in your face and stick with you. What they will do is hustle on every possession and make scoring tough for the other team.
Florida's David Lee (24), right, goes up for points as Kentucky's Chuck Hayes is unable to block the shot in the first half in Gainesville, Fla., Sunday, March 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
Earlier in the season, they won games by running, pressing and scoring. When the SEC schedule hit the downside, the Gators proved in the final eight games that they can win games without scoring big. They proved they can win by playing in your face defense, rebounding the basketball and coming up with big shots in critical moments.
For the past three years the knock on Anthony Roberson has been that he can score on anyone but that anyone can score on him. He's opened his game this year to show that he has more than the three-ball in his arsenal. Shut down the three and he'll take it to the rack. Sunday he scored 21 points on a variety of shots. He hit three from behind the arc and had at least three that were all the way down but somehow popped out. He also scored on a couple of mid-range jumpers when he pulled up after getting his man on the move, and if he was defended too tight, he showed the kind of fearlessness that has characterized his offensive game down the stretch. In the final eight games of the season, and in particular on Sunday, Anthony Roberson showed he will go all the way to the hoop against the big boys. At the 5:26 mark he got a layup when he abused Kentucky's Rajon Ronto off the dribble, then sneaked behind David Lee to score a layup with the Wildcats Randolph Morris (6-11) and Chuck Hayes hanging in the air.
He scored 21 points which is what you would expect of the league's top scorer. He hit the two free throws with 15.2 seconds remaining that gave the Gators the one point margin they needed to win.
Score he did, but he also played defense and it was a defensive play he made with 16 seconds remaining in the game that probably sealed the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year award for the junior from Saginaw, Michigan.
With the Gators trailing, 52-51, Kentucky worked the shot clock down to five. Patrick Sparks made a spin move and took two quick dribbles to his left to go up for a shot just to the left of the lane. As he elevated, Roberson timed his reach-in perfectly and he came away with the basketball. Sparks fouled him immediately, sending the SEC's best free throw shooter to the line where he calmly knocked down both shots to set the stage for Florida's final defensive stand of the game.
Florida's Matt Walsh, right, hugs teammate Taurean Green, left, as the bell sounds and Florida upsets Kentucky with a score of 53-52 in Gainesville, Fla., Sunday, March 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
"It feels good to win a game with my defense," said Roberson. "Everybody has said we don't play defense, but we do and we played defense today. I just feel blessed by God that I got a chance to make a play."
That Roberson would win a game with a defensive play is indicative of how far the Gators have come this year. This was a game they would have lost last year because it was a tough, grind it out type of game where the premium was on the defensive end and on the rebounding. This was the kind of game that last year's team wouldn't have had the stomach to win because they lacked both the emotional and physical toughness to come up with all the right plays at the end of grind it out games.
"If we didn't just run and outscore people last year, we couldn't win," said Walsh, who came up big with a three-point play the old fashioned way and a three-ball from the outer limits to keep the Gators in the game down the stretch.
That he got the first three-point play is an indicator of how far the Gators have come. He had an open look for a three with 1:50 remaining and Florida trailing, 49-45, but he missed and Kentucky rebounded. On the Wildcats possession, Florida played tough defense and forced a bad three out of Sparks. Brewer took a long rebound, took two dribbles and fired a pass to Walsh to hit a layup, got the foul and the free throw.
The Gators of last year might have sulked after that missed three-ball with 1:50 left. This year's just kept playing hard and even though Sparks answered Walsh with a three-ball of his own, there was a feeling that the Gators were going to find a way to win.
"We were not going to lose this game," said Roberson. "We knew we were going to win."
Last year's team might have rushed the ball down the court and fired up the first shot available. This year's team calmly moved the ball around. It was freshman center Al Horford who found Walsh open at the top of the key. Walsh took in the pass, set his feet and let fly with a 25-footer that hit only nylon, bringing the Gators back within one with 47.5 seconds to go.
That put the game in the hands of Florida's defense. Last year, that would have been a pact with the devil. Florida did not win games with defense.
"Last year we had to outscore people," said Donovan. "We could not have won a game like this last year. We have a few more ways to win which is nice."
What made winning nice was that it was the perfect ending to the perfect senior day for David Lee, who had 11 points and 10 clutch rebounds to go with a blocked shot, a couple of assists and a couple of steals in his last game before the O'Connell Center fans.
Lee had been honored in an emotional pre-game senior day ceremony that brought down the house with a thundering ovation. When this game was over, he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.
"Man it's good to win one for David," said Roberson, whose draft stock may have taken such a positive jolt that he may join the big man in the NBA next year. "If anyone deserved to go out with a win, it's David."
Walsh, who spent the excited moments after the game looking for someone to hug, almost in Jimmy Valvano fashion, simply smiled after the game when he thought about playing his last game in the O'Connell Center with Lee.
"It's going to be weird playing without him next year," he said. "So I'm glad the last game we play together in this arena is a win against Kentucky. We weren't going to let him go out without a win. We just weren't going to let him lose."
That's the difference in this year's team and last year's. Though last year's team won 20 games and made it to the SEC tournament finals against Kentucky, there's no way that that team can measure up with the defense, rebounding and most of all, the heart of this edition of Gators. This year's team makes up its mind it's going to win and it finds ways to win."
They play hard. They find ways to win. They are a better team.
Florida's David Lee reacts to the crowd after Florida upset Kentucky 53-52 in Gainesville, Fla., Sunday, March 6, 2005. This was Lee's last home game for Florida. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
But still, it came down to one shot. Kentucky had its chance to make it and missed.
"It really looked from where I was that it was dead center," said Donovan. "It really looked good but he missed. In the past, they made that shot."
In the past, it would have been another heartbreak. But that was then. This is now. For once, the heartbreak went the other way. And one more time, the team that had no heart last year showed that it has a heart ready to burst out of its chest.