ATLANTA—At halftime of Saturday’s Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal game between Florida and Vanderbilt, Gators guard Erving Walker had zero points and Vandy’s Commodores had an eight-point lead.
By game’s end, Walker had totaled 17 and Florida was marching into today’s 1 p.m. title game against Kentucky off a 77-66 victory over Vanderbilt. The Gators are in the tournament final for the first time in four years.
“It always helps when your coach doesn’t yank you if you miss one,” Walker said of coach Billy Donovan after the point guard and backcourt mate Kenny Boynton (24 points) ruined the Commodores’ hopes of reaching an SEC tourney final for the first time since 1951.
“He’s been real generous to us, and we just keep shooting with confidence.”
No backcourt in America may play with more confidence than the 5-foot-8 junior Walker and 6-2 sophomore Boynton. Sometimes shooting as far away as 30 feet, Walker averages a team-high 14.5 points and 3.4 assists. Boynton ably backs him with 13.9 points and 2.5 assists a game.
In the second half against the Commodores, they each hit three 3-pointers, at least a couple of which were more than 25 feet out.
“You’re told to be ready for the deep ones and the really unexpected ones,” said Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor, who led VU with 21 points and had to guard Walker. “But sometimes it’s still a little unexpected. They just do a really good job of making tough shots.”
Four of Florida’s five starters are averaging double figures with the fifth one, senior forward Alex Tyus, scoring nine points a game.
“That’s what makes them so difficult,” said losing coach Kevin Stallings, whose team is 23-10 as it awaits an expected NCAA tournament bid this evening. “We were actually able to shut some guys down today [Tyus scored one point and center Vernon Macklin had six], but their bench hurt us.”
Indeed, Florida’s bench outscored the Commodores 13-0 after VU’s reserves totaled 12 points against LSU and 10 10 against Mississippi State the previous two nights.
“I thought energy-wise, when we got down 11-2, when we subbed ... they all gave us very good minutes,” said Donovan, whose 26-6 squad could be in line for a No. 2 seed when the 68-team NCAA field is announced.
“When your starters aren’t shooting it well, you just try to utilize your bench the best you can.”
Now Florida faces a depth-deprived Kentucky team that just got thinner with the probable loss of starting guard Doron Lamb to a sprained ankle. To make it tougher for UK, starting forward Terrence Jones and reserve DeAndre Liggins also are nursing tender ankles.
“If [Lamb] doesn’t play,” UK coach John Calipari said Saturday with a shrug, “we’ll just have to play without him.”
Florida, of course, will be playing with Walker and Boynton, of whom Donovan said, “If those guys tonight were playing tight and afraid to shoot the ball and worried if they were coming out of the game [if a shot] missed, we probably wouldn’t have won tonight.”
Instead, they’re in the SEC tourney title game for the first time since 2007 — the year they captured the second of their two straight NCAA championships inside this same Georgia Dome.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...