Gators center Vernon Macklin admits his teammate is probably a couple of inches shorter.
“5-6,” Macklin said. “But I’ll give him 5-8 tonight.”
Walker, a junior from Brooklyn, N.Y., has never played like he’s shorter than almost every player on the court.
In the final minutes of No. 2 seed Florida’s 73-65 victory over No. 7 seed UCLA in the third round of the Southeast Regional at St. Pete Times Forum, Walker certainly played like he was bigger than everyone else.
Walker scored 21 points on 5-for-8 shooting, including nine of the Gators’ final 11 points. Walker’s 3-pointer put Florida ahead by a 69-65 score with 1:13 to play, and then he went 4-for-4 on foul shots in the final 32.8 seconds.
Florida advanced to next week’s Southeast Regional semifinals in New Orleans, where it will play the winner of Saturday night’s game between No. 3 seed BYU and No. 11 seed Gonzaga.
“He’s a great competitor,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I think when you’re that small and you’re always having to fight for respect, I think he knows he’s going to have to earn it.”
Walker has definitely earned the respect of his teammates. When the Gators’ postseason lives were on the line against the Bruins, they knew which player they wanted taking shots at the end.
“Erv is fearless,” Florida forward Chandler Parsons said. “Every time that guy takes a shot, I know it’s going in. He’s got a knack for making big shots. He’s a gutsy player that wants to take big shots like that.”
Walker put Florida ahead 63-58 with a circus bank shot with about four minutes to play. Walker made the shot after bouncing off the chest of UCLA center Josh Smith, a 6-foot-10, 338-pound freshman.
“It was a big play and Josh was right there,” Bruins coach Ben Howland said. “He just kind of bounced off him and hung in the air.”
With Florida holding a 64-60 lead with 3:07 left, Walker and freshman guard Scottie Wilbekin trapped UCLA’s Lazeric Jones at midcourt and forced him to dribble the ball off his foot. Macklin scored a layup on Florida’s next possession for a 66-60 lead.
“He’s so quick,” Howland said. “He’s very athletic. He’s very skilled. He’s a fearless little guy. He’s just a very good player.”
The Bruins got as close as 66-65 on Smith’s layup with 1:33 to play. After the ball was knocked out of bounds, Wilbekin had trouble getting the ball back in. He lofted a pass to Walker near midcourt, and UCLA’s Malcolm Lee tried to steal it. Lee slipped, which was just enough of an opening for Walker to take the biggest shot of his career.
“I checked to make sure I had time to get the shot off,” Walker said. “It was a good look, and I thought it was a good shot for me to take.”
Walker drained the 3-pointer, putting the Gators back into the Sweet 16 for the first time since winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
“Erv is a really aggressive player,” Macklin said. “He really came through for us at the end. He has crazy range.”
Walker’s teammates weren’t surprised he was the player leading them there.
“Erv wants the ball in his hands and he wants to take big shots,” Macklin said. “How many guys his size want to do that? He’s so relentless and has a huge heart.”