7:00 PM ET, November 19, 2002
Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Florida
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.
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