Shortly after the No. 2-seed Florida Gators completed a hard-fought 73-65 victory over the No. 7-seed UCLA Bruins, a handful of players and head coach Billy Donovan participated in the postgame press conference. OGGOA has compiled some choice notes and quotes from the media availabilities.
Scoring 10 of Florida’s final 12 points including the last seven with 1:15 to go in the game, the only word to describe junior point guard Erving Walker on Saturday is “clutch.” However, Walker’s triumphant second half actually began with four minutes to go earlier when he drove into UCLA center Joshua Smith in an attempt to force his fifth foul but instead bounced off the 6’10” 323-pound freshman and hit an awe-inspiring bank shot to put UF up five. Though Donovan and his teammates were all pleased with his performance, not a single one of them were surprised by his heroics.
“Erv’s fearless. Anytime that guy shoots the ball, I think it’s going in,” senior forward Chandler Parsons said. “He’s got a knack for hitting big shots. This one [over Smith] definitely ranks up there. He was just trying to draw contact; it was a crazy shot and just went in. He’s been doing that for us all year long, so it really doesn’t surprise me because he’s a gutsy player who is willing and wants to take the last shot like that.”
Donovan also praised Walker’s evening. “He really played well. He was out of sorts a little bit in the first half,” he said. “He had a couple plays where he took a bad three and he had a drive that got blocked; both of those plays led to free throws and fouls for our frontcourt. I was pretty hard on him during the game and at halftime because I felt like he was going to need to step up. Not so much making shots but just… When he’s got his engine running and he’s got that fire and that passion, it changes the complexion of our team and opens up things for other guys on our team. He is a great competitor.
“When you’re that small, and you’re always having to fight for respect, he’s adopted that kind of thing that he knows he’s got to earn it. He’s got that mentality that he realizes he’s going to be evaluated and judged on winning and losing on a point guard and as a player. With his size, he really takes on those challenges.”
Equally complimentary of Walker was Bruins head coach Ben Howland. “He’s so quick. He’s very fast, athletic, and he’s very skilled. He can really shoot it. He’s a fearless little guy,” he said, before discussing Walker’s shot over Smith. “It was a big play. He just kind of bounced off him and hung in the air. That was a very big play.”
Walker took his two clutch shots in stride. “I tried to get past him and I thought he fouled me,” he said of his shot over Smith. “I felt a lot of contact so I tried to just get the ball up on the rim and I was expecting a call, but I didn’t get it and it luckily went in.” Walker also discussed his big three with 1:15 remaining. “We was having a little trouble getting the ball in bounds so Scottie threw it long to me. Malcom Lee went for the steal and I check just to make sure I had time to get the shot off. It was a good look and I felt that would have been a good shot for me to take. I was able to knock the shot down.”
TAKING BACK THE GLASS
Out-rebounded 20-10 in the first half, Donovan wanted to make sure the Gators made a conscious effort to reverse that disparity coming out of the break. That is exactly what they did, out-rebounding their opponent by the same margin to finish the games with each team grabbing 30 apiece.
“We just wanted to stop them from getting second-chance shots. They were really going hard on the offensive glass in the first half,” said senior F Alex Tyus, who brought down a career-high 13 rebounds in the contest. “We answered that in the second half. Alex did a great job on the glass,” Donovan said. “A big key in the game was both frontcourts were battling foul trouble back-and-forth. People can see why I made some of the comments about Smith the other day, because he’s certainly a load. He’s a terrific player, has great hands.”
Donovan also praised Tyus’s efforts. “When he’s playing active like that, even against front lines that are big and strong, he’s so athletic that when he plays with that kind of motor, he’s really a hard guy to block out,” he said.
Florida’s trip to the Sweet 16 is a huge step up from how they have finished the past three seasons. That being said, no one on the team is content with the multiple accomplishments the Gators have already obtained. “We’re not satisfied. We want to keep going,” Parsons said after the game. “We’re excited to see who we play, and we’re excited to get back to work tomorrow and keep taking it one game at a time.”
Freshmen Wilbekin and C Patric Young agreed. “I knew coming in we had a chance to go deep in the tournament with this team. That’s part of the reason I chose to come early, because I knew we had a great team, great starting five returning,” Wilbekin said. “We’re happy for this win but we can’t celebrate it too much. We have more games to go. We’re trying to get to the Final Four and win the championship.” Young shared a similar sentiment on the team’s goals. “You want to make it all the way. We all have our dreams of winning a national championship,” he said.
TWO OTHER BIG MOMENTS
In addition to Walker’s athletic bank shot and dynamic three-pointer, a number of other memorable plays were made down the stretch. Walker and Parsons discuss two game-changing plays they were involved in near the end of the game.
Walker on the trap turnover he and Wilbekin forced: “We were just trying to force the tempo the whole game and they did a good job handling our pressure. Scottie got him in a speed dribble when I came from behind and we got a huge turnover. I think that just changed the momentum for us.”
Parsons on his athletic block of the much-bigger Smith: “There were multiple plays in the game that were big, like Erving’s shot and different defensive stops we made. It was actually my fault on the block because I was late rotating there, so I just tried to get a hand on the ball. That guy’s really strong. It was just a big play.”
Donovan on UCLA as a quality opponent: “UCLA was as good as any team we’ve played all year long. […] We were as tested by them as any team we’ve played all year.”
Donovan on coaching Walker: “I love coaching him just because he’s highly competitive. When you’re dealing with a guy that’s highly competitive, you can always do things to get that competitiveness to come out. It is pretty remarkable what he has been able to do at his size. Six-seven years ago, when his high school coach called me about him, he visited our campus when he was a sophomore in high school and he’s telling me how good he is. I’m like, ‘Listen, you got to be kidding me. This guy is like 5’2”. He’s got no chance.’ Erving’s one of those guys that kind of bides his time during the game and I want to see his engine running a little bit earlier. What you saw the last six minutes of the game, I want that for 40 minutes when he’s out there. I’m always pulling and grabbing for more time to play like that.”
Donovan on how the team will be viewed after this win: “If we would have lost today, my dealing with them every single day would not change at all just because we made it to the Sweet 16. I understand how fragile winning and losing is in this tournament – and even during the year. It has been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling to see where these guys have gotten to at this point in time. Because we’ve won and gotten to the Sweet 16, people now want to talk about the interesting story of where these guys have come [from] to get to that point.”
Parsons on beating UCLA three-straight times: “Any game that has take place before our team is really irrelevant to us. It’s definitely exciting to beat a team of that caliber, because they’re very good.”
Parsons on the team having experience in close games: “Our schedule all year long has really prepared us for teams we’re going to face this late into March. Our freshmen have been great all year long just asking questions and being listeners. They understand their role perfectly and they’ve been providing us good minutes all year long.”
Walker on the team’s toughness: “We try to do everything in a total team effort. All five of our starters are basically averaging double figures, and if one person is down, we try to pick each other up. Coach does a good job of keeping us connected and all on the same page.”
Walker on if he has/had a nickname: “I had a couple, but we can just go with what Kenny [Boynton] said [Big Shot Erv], I like that one.”
Young on the team’s balance: “Any given night one of our guys can just go off and have whatever amount of points. If someone’s not having a good game [scoring], they can still affect the game in another way and help our team out.”
Murphy on Walker’s big shot ability: “I’ve seen him hit some ridiculous shots. The Georgia game? That was unbelievable. I inbounded him the ball on that play when he hit that three to send it to double overtime. He told me as I inbounded it to him, he told me he was going to hit it. He just makes crazy plays.”
Murphy on Walker: “He’s got that New York swagger to him.”