Saturday, January 3, 2009

Florida 68, North Carolina State 66

Nick Calathes is an ugly dude. But he's a beautiful basketball player.

UF's extraordinary sophomore guard scored 32 points on 11 of 16 shooting to lead the Gators to an exciting, come-from-behind 68-66 win over North Carolina State. Calathes was everywhere and did everything down the stretch, scoring almost at will against a defense keyed to stop him. Calathes dished five assists, picked up five rebounds and made nine of his 13 free throws.

Floriad needed the Herculean effort because it had nothing to compare with State's inside presence. Forward Brandon Costner scored 24 points and the Wolfpack shot 58.5 percent against a Florida team that continues to struggle defensively.

But this was a different brand of defensive struggle from the one UF experienced against Syracuse. In that game, the Gators were hopeless against the Orange. UF's guards imitated matadors and the paint players pretty much stepped aside and let Syracuse score at will.

Today, UF was actually able to affect the other team on the defensive end. Florida took advantage of NC State's weak collection of guards with a strong full-court press. The Gators stole the ball 11 times and forced 18 turnovers, most of which came in the second half. Leading the defensive charge was itsy bitsy freshman Erving Walker, who recorded two steals and put pressure on every NC State player to pick up the ball.

This one didn't start like a particularly encouraging game. Florida jumped out to a small lead early in the contest, but quickly succumbed to the handful of talented post players State trotted on to the court. The Gators couldn't do anything inside (Pleasant Surprise of the Season Alex Tyus scored just two points) and couldn't hit a three-pointer to save their lives. (UF ended up two of 13 from behind the arc)

UF trailed by ten after the first 20 minutes of play, but the second half was its best of the season. The Gators never did find a way to stop NC State's halfcourt offense: UF either forced a turnover early in the possession or gave up points.

But driven by Walker's defense and Calathes' all-around brilliance, the Gators managed to briefly pull ahead late in the half. The two teams traded the lead a few times, and UF got the ball with 28 seconds left, down one.

Calathes calmly drove into the lane, lifted a one-handed running jumper and watched as it rolled through the net. NC State took the ball down the court, but the Gators once again stepped up and forced a turnover from Wolfpack guard Farnold Deagan. Calathes was credited with the steal, but it was more a product of Deagan's mistakes and UF's team pressure.

This win doesn't magically fix all UF's problems. The Gators aren't going to get taller or bigger as the season wears on. Freshman Kenny Kadji might grow into the system and give UF a little strength inside, but that's a thin reed on which to depend. Dan Werner's not going to become a legit post presence. And it's hard to imagine these guys developing into a defensive force.

But with the conference schedule on the horizon (the Gators have one more gimme non-conference game against Longwood), it's good to bank a win against a quasi-respectable ACC school. Washington and NC State aren't noticeably good teams, but they are names, and they're respectable enough to be decent wins on an NCAA resume.

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