Two-time defending national champs hang on to beat North Dakota

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- A highly touted freshman carried Florida early. The team's lone upperclassman took over late.

Together, Nick Calathes and Walter Hodge helped coach Billy Donovan's rebuilding project get off to a smooth start.

Calathes scored 21 points, Hodge added 15 and the two-time defending national champion Gators beat pesky North Dakota State 75-65 on Friday night to open the season.

Calathes drove to the basket early and often, taking advantage of his quick first step and 6-foot-6 frame to get high-percentage shots.

But Hodge came up big down the stretch. The junior made three of the team's final four shots -- all driving layups -- and prevented the Bison from making a comeback.

"Walter made some really, really explosive finishes to the basket," Donovan said. "I saw tremendous passion from him. I think he tried to take over a leadership role with our guys, which I was really encouraged to see that. Some of these guys don't know where to turn to. They're listening to me, but I'm not out there.

"Walt did a real good job and made some plays and some big plays that certainly helped up get a victory."

It wasn't easy, especially since the Gators played their first game in four years without Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah.

The foursome helped Florida win 68 games the last two years, including 18 in a row in the postseason. They won back-to-back Southeastern Conference tournaments and became the first team in 15 years to repeat as national champs. Then they jumped to the NBA, leaving Donovan with only nine scholarship players -- Hodge, three sophomores and five freshmen.

The Gators don't have the inside presence they had with Horford and Noah, but they have plenty of outside shooting and a willingness to play defense -- the two biggest characteristics of "Billyball."

Marreese Speights, Florida's lone low-post player, finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. His dunk with 47 seconds to play was the team's only one of the game.

Donovan thought Speights could have been more dominant down low. Calathes and Hodge picked up the slack.

"I think Nick Calathes is a kid that we will look at in a few years and think, 'Holy Cow," North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips said. "He is that good right now."

Donovan expected his young and inexperienced team to struggle, especially early, but the Gators used an up-tempo offense and a pressing defense to take an early lead.

The Gators led 39-25 at halftime, thanks mostly to Calathes' 10 points. He made three of the team's first four shots after the break and helped Florida build an 18-point lead. He came up big again later, driving the lane and hitting consecutive baskets to turn an eight-point game into a double-digit lead.

But North Dakota State chipped away with its veteran lineup; the Bison returned four starters from last season's team that finished 20-8 and won at Marquette. They cut the lead to 69-63 with 2:27 remaining, but missed several 3-pointers in the final minutes.

Mike Nelson led North Dakota State with 17 points and six assists. Brett Winkelman added 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Ben Woodside also had 16 points, and Michael Tveidt chipped in 12.

Nelson, Winkelman, Woodside and Tveidt combined for 61 of the team's 65 points.

"It was great for our guys to be in some of those situations, to have to grind and fight and find a way to win a game," Donovan said.


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