Jan 18, 2003
By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Matt Bonner’s outside shooting touch was a little off.
So Florida coach Billy Donovan knew what his senior should do with the game on the line.
Bonner took a bounce pass from freshman Matt Walsh and converted a driving dunk with 35.3 seconds left as the sixth-ranked Gators won their 11th straight game with 77-75 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night.
“I’m just thankful Coach gave me some plays down low because I couldn’t buy a jump shot,” said Bonner, who still led Florida with 19 points despite 7-of-16 shooting.
No doubt Bonner’s most important inside play came with the game tied at 72-all.
Only moments earlier, South Carolina’s Kerbrell Brown missed a wide-open follow from inches away after Chuck Eidson’s long 3-point attempt.
Then, the Gators quickly rushed downcourt and Walsh fed a perfect pass with Bonner driving the lane for the bucket.
“I was just glad I was able to handle that backdoor pass,” Bonner said. “I just had to make something happen. Somehow, we were able to rely on our experience here.”
Walsh had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and Bonell Colas had a career-high 16 points off the bench for the Gators (15-2, 4-0 Southeastern Conference).
“There were a lot of big plays made by this basketball team,” Donovan said. “One of the biggest was that pass from Walsh to Bonner. That was big.”
Tony Kitchings and Brown each had 22 points for South Carolina (7-7, 1-3), which lost its third straight.
Even after Bonner’s basket, Florida had work to do to win its league-best 17th SEC road game over the last two years.
Walsh added two foul shots to make it 76-72, but Carlos Powell hit a 3 with 4.9 seconds left to bring the Gamecocks within a point. Gators freshman Anthony Roberson made only one of two foul shots to give the Gamecocks one last chance.
South Carolina’s Carlos Powell tries to pass the ball off as Florida’s Bonell Colas (42) and Matt Bonner defend.
But Powell lost control and could only get off a desperation 3 before time ran out on South Carolina.
Kitchings was dominant in the first half for South Carolina with 19 points and eight rebounds. However, he had only three points and one rebound in the final 20 minutes.
“I was really, really disappointed with our frontcourt at half time,” Donovan said. “I tried to challenge those guys at halftime that someone needs to stop Kitchings.”
Colas and Bonner came out more aggressively and bottled up Kitchings most of the way. South Carolina’s 6-foot-10 senior fouled out with 2:18 to go.
For most of this one, Florida looked like it would join the five other top 10 teams that lost Saturday.
Donovan had those five defeats on the Gators board before the game and urged them to stay focused. The message took some time to sink in.
The Gators trailed 42-31 right before the half, but Bonner began their comeback with a 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds to go that sent them to the locker room down 44-37.
Bonner hit a 3-pointer to start the second half, then hit two foul shots to bring Florida to 45-42.
Roberson’s straight-away 3-pointer with 4:08 left gave Florida its first lead in more than 23 minutes at 68-67.
The teams traded the lead three more times after that. Howell’s foul shot with 2:03 to go tied things for the final time and set up Bonner’s game-winning drive.
Florida has won eight of its last nine against South Carolina and matched last year’s 15-2 mark as the best start in school history.
South Carolina coach Dave Odom was pleased with his team’s effort, but knew it missed an opportunity for success.
“You’ve got to drive them into the ground and finish them,” Odom said. “Because they will not finish themselves.”
South Carolina made seven of their first 10 shots and stayed above 50 percent. Florida finished at 40 percent (26-of-65) from the field for its worst SEC shooting performance this season.