Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Florida 97, South Carolina 93

Devan Downey devastates defenders with deafening dramatic displays.

Yes, Florida won this game and moved to 6-2 in the SEC, but it was South Carolina's Death Dwarf who stole the stole. The diminutive Downey scored 33 points on 13 of 24 shooting, drained seven of nine three-pointers and nearly hauled the Gamecocks to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory.

Fortunately, the key word there is "nearly." The Gators held on by the skin of their teeth and drained clutch free throws in the face of Downey's insane string of acrobatic threes.

UF had an 91-82 lead with 57 seconds left after Erving Walker nailed two free throws. Downey hit a three with 48 seconds left. 10 seconds later, senior Walter Hodge gave Downey and USC(E) the slim opening they needed when he missed two free throws. Downey drove the length of the court, blew past Walker and hit an easy lay-up, making the score 91-87.

Hodge, to his everlasting credit, hit two free throws with 31 seconds left, pushing the score to 93-87. Not daunted, Downey four seconds later hit another three-pointer, pulling South Carolina to within three. Nick Calathes, who hit 13 of 16 at the charity stripe after botching several attempts when the Gators played at South Carolina, sunk two shots, giving the Gators a 95-90 lead.

Yawning, Downey drained another three, making the score 95-93. The Gamecocks fouled Walter Hodge with 13 seconds left, and if he missed one shot, Downey was going to have a chance to tie the game with a three. If Hodge missed both, Downey was going to have a chance to win the game with a three. And to be honest, I say "a chance" despite knowing that Downey definitely would have made that shot.

Hodge came through and buried both shots, and even Devan Downey couldn't find a way to hit a four-pointer. He barely missed a desperation three at the other end, and Florida was able to corral the rebound and the victory.

Really a hell of a game all around. ESPN's announcing crew predicted 95-92 halfway through the first half, and they were pretty much on the money. Florida's inability to stop South Carolina was annoying, but those 92 points were far more the result of outstanding execution and unreal shooting than anything the Gators did poorly. The Gamecocks hit 50 percent of their 22 three-point attempt.

Walker deserves to be singled out for some praise. He played 29 minutes, more than anyone but Calathes and Chandler Parsons, scored 18 points on four of eight shooting and hit seven of eight free throws. Billy Donovan asked a lot of him, and the freshman handled his burdens with aplomb. Walker took the ball past halfcourt against SC's full court press, and he was expected to both guard Downey and be guarded by him. The latter task was no small thing; Downey's a steal machine, and Walker turned it over just once. (Against four assists.)

Parsons continued his good work with 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. In fact, all five Florida starters (plus Walker) scored in double figures.

This was a big one for Florida. As I wrote above, it moves the Gators to 6-2 in the conference (19-4 overall) and gives them first place in the SEC East. Far more important is that it clears the road for nine SEC wins: UF need only best Georgia on the road and Vanderbilt and Alabama at home to clinch those nine wins and a better than .500 conference record.

Now, 9-7 in the SEC isn't going to get it done with the selection committee this year, considering how crummy the conference is. But if Florida wins those three games, it just needs to win one of the toss-up games (at LSU, at Mississippi State, either Kentucky game and home against Tennessee) to pull a 10-6 record. And no SEC team has ever gone 10-6 in the conference and missed the NCAA tournament.

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