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Fans compare Walsh to Bird at end of big night

11/20/2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- A fashion plate, he's not. A basketball
player -- most definitely.

Wearing garish orange shoes, a sweaty white headband and a
scraggly little goatee, Florida freshman Matt Walsh burst onto the
college basketball scene Tuesday night.

He scored 26 points to lead the Gators to a 76-55
victory over Louisiana Tech in the opening round of the Preseason
NIT.

The 6-foot-6 forward from Holland, Pa., also had five assists,
three rebounds and four steals. He took little time in establishing
himself as one of the top freshmen to watch this season.

''I knew his name, I knew he had done some good things in their
exhibition game,'' Louisiana Tech coach Keith Richard said. ''But
what an outstanding player for a freshman. Wow.''

Coach Billy Donovan improved to 7-0 in openers with the Gators (No. 7 ESPN/USA Today; No. 8 Associated Press).
They will play host to Eastern Illinois in the second round of the NIT on
Thursday, with the winner heading to New York for the semifinals Nov. 27.

Freshman guard Anthony Roberson -- the most ballyhooed of
Donovan's latest recruiting class -- opened his career with 13
points and two assists.

But the night really belonged to Walsh. His 26-point game
rivaled early season performances of top freshmen Rashad McCants of
North Carolina (28 points) and Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse (27).

''I never expected to have a game like this,'' Walsh admitted.

Walsh made two 3-pointers and no fewer than three dunks. He
dived for loose balls and had an early candidate for pass of the
year when he zinged a left-handed, no-look pass across his body to
Matt Bonner for an easy layup in the second half.

''I just saw him at the last second, and decided to throw it,''
Walsh explained. ''It probably would have been kind of bad if I
turned it over.''

The only one not laughing at that line was Donovan, who now
embarks on the mission of trying to make sure the resounding early
success won't go to this freshman's head.

''I'm happy for him, but the season's not ending,'' Donovan
said. ''Eastern Illinois, on Thursday, is going to have him on the
scouting report.''

The Gators must rely on their freshmen because they're playing
without senior guard Brett Nelson (foot), junior forward Bonell
Colas (groin) and freshman Christian Drejer of Denmark (ankle, foot
infection).

Bonner was one of the two healthy remaining seniors, and he
scored only four points. Donovan said there was nothing physically
wrong with Bonner.

''I don't know if he was 100 percent mentally, for whatever
reason,'' Donovan said.

It barely mattered on this night. Sophomore David Lee had 10
rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots, while senior Justin
Hamilton finished with 21 points. Hamilton said he wasn't surprised
with the games Walsh and Roberson had.

''I see it every day in practice,'' Hamilton said.

While the Gators are relying on youth, Louisiana Tech offered a
rarely seen sight these days in college basketball -- a starting
lineup with five seniors. But experience wasn't enough.

Louisiana Tech kept the game close for about 15 minutes, then
Lee, Walsh and Hamilton combined for an 11-2 run to give the Gators
a 40-26 halftime lead.

Antonio Meeking led the Bulldogs with 20 points and 12 rebounds.