Calathes, Speights lead Gators

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After Billy Donovan wrapped up his postgame press conference in Columbia Wednesday night, a concerned reporter approached the coach to ask about his health. Was he sick? No, explained Donovan, he just sounded sick after spending so much time screaming at freshmen.

Whatever he's screaming, it's been working. Because of their ability to make plays in the critical final moments of the game, the Gators won another one that easily could have gotten away from them.

South Carolina is not a great basketball team, but they have been very competitive against quality opponents this year. Couple the emotional lift provided by Gamecock coach Dave Odom's recent announcement of his pending retirement with a week of preparation time to get ready for Florida and this game had plenty of signs of danger for the Gators. Florida coach Billy Donovan expected a challenging evening in Columbia. He got what he was looking for, as Florida was playing from behind for the majority of the game. The Gators only led for a total of just over five minutes.

"We were coming into a very difficult situation," Donovan said. "I knew their kids would be ready to play, as they always are, and they were going to give a great effort."

South Carolina's numbers reflected how strong their effort was. Odom was clearly puzzled after the game as he tried to understand how the Gamecocks had shot 53 percent from the field (including going 10-for-20 from 3-point range) and still come up short on their home floor. The answers to his question were wearing numbers 33 and 34 for Florida.

Freshman forward Nick Calathes continues to shine when the pressure is on. With 4:20 remaining against the Gamecocks, Florida trailed 67-65. Calathes either scored or had an assist on all of the Gators' remaining points. He drained the 3-pointer that put Florida ahead for good and then was credited with assists on Dan Werner's three pointer and a Mareese Speights dunk to push the lead to a too much for SC to overcome six points.

As for Speights, the sophomore center has put together the two best consecutive games of his career. After an impressive twenty point performance against Kentucky and star freshman Patrick Patterson in front of a home crowd on national television, there were questions about his ability to carry that intensity over to face a Gamecocks squad on the road. Speights scored Florida's first and last baskets against South Carolina and performed at high level throughout on his way to 22 points and thirteen rebounds. UF's bench boss was delighted with the Speights performance.

"He gave a great effort," Donovan said. "He was terrific on the backboard and made a lot of different plays for us. I was really encouraged to see him have two games in a row like he did.... once you do it once, I believe you can do it again."

If Speights has found the right way to play to be consistently productive, it will help take some of the pressure off other players to carry the scoring load. Confirmation that Speights has turned the corner may come Sunday in Gainesville against Vanderbilt, which features impressive freshman center A.J. Ogilvy. Like South Carolina, the Commodores will come into their matchup with Florida on a full week's rest. Should Speights again put up big numbers in the paint he'll have to be considered a vastly more legit weapon than his earlier play would have indicated.

At 4-1 in the SEC and 17-3 overall, Florida currently sits a half game up on Tennessee for the Eastern division lead. Current projections by bracket gurus have put Florida just on the outside of the NCAA field, but six more wins should ensure Florida receives a tournament bid. With 11 games plus at least one SEC tournament game remaining, the Gators now have the luxury of being able to qualify for March Madness even if they play .500 basketball the rest of the way.

The Heath Cline Show airs daily from 11-1 on Gainesville's Star 99.5 FM

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