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MassMutual Tipoff Classic

November 29, 2003 Columns No Comments


The Best Matchup in Springfield

by Phil Kasiecki

Springfield, Mass. – The public address announcer said the game will be remembered among the best matchups in the history of the MassMutual Classic, formerly the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic. That is high praise; over the years, it has featured many classic matchups, with results ranging from the shootout in 1990 between Villanova and LSU (won by the Wildcats, 93-91) to the defensive struggle last year between Alabama and Ohio State (won by the Crimson, 54-48).

But the man knew what he was talking about when he gave out such praise.

This year’s game fell in between in terms of offense, but will certainly go down as a classic. Bonell Colas made a layup off an inbounds pass with 7.3 seconds left to give No. 9 Florida a 78-77 win over No. 3 Arizona in a game that was close throughout. The largest lead either team held was 8 points and the score was tied seven times.

In the early going, it looked like the Wildcats (1-1) would have control of the game, scoring several early baskets while thriving in the up-tempo setting. Channing Frye (15 points, 13 rebounds, 5 blocks) asserted himself inside, while Florida’s lack of depth inside looked like it could hurt the Gators. But the Gators (2-0) stayed right there, making plays at the defensive end and cashing in at the offensive end, heading into the locker room trailing 34-33.

In the second half, it looked like the Gators could break the game open after taking the lead early. Mustafa Shakur (13 points) picked up his fourth foul just over two minutes into the half and with Florida leading 40-38. The Gators then scored the next six points to complete an 11-0 run for the largest lead of the game. Frye then completed a three-point play to start a run of nine unanswered points by the Wildcats to reclaim the lead at 47-46.

Shortly after that, game MVP Matt Walsh (18 of his 27 points in the second half) went to work, knocking down three straight three-pointers within 61 seconds, the last one breaking a 55-55 tie to put the Gators ahead. Arizona would regain the lead, but Walsh hit another three-pointer about three minutes later to cut the lead to two at 64-62.

The Wildcats would later get their biggest lead, going up 71-64 on a layup by Shakur, but the Gators chipped away after that. After Anthony Roberson (15 points) brought the Gators within 77-76 on a layup with 2 minutes left, the teams went scoreless. Salim Stoudamire was fouled with 23 seconds left, usually about the last Wildcat a team would want to foul as he is an 89% career free throw shooter. But Stoudamire missed the front end of a 1-and-1, leading to the winning inbound pass after a timeout taken by the Gators and a 30-second timeout taken by the Wildcats. The field goal was the only one Colas made in the game.

Chris Rodgers led five Wildcats in double figures with 17 points, 13 coming in the second half. The Wildcats grabbed 24 offensive rebounds, but couldn’t take advantage of them as they shot 38% from the floor.

Game Notes

One important element of this game was sure to be depth, as Florida was deeper, although Arizona’s starters are probably better. The early minutes, when Arizona was running often, didn’t surprise Florida head coach Billy Donovan.

“I thought, coming into the game, it would certainly be a track meet,” Donovan said. “I give Arizona credit because they did a great job running the ball down our throat.”

While Walsh was the game MVP largely for his 27 points and clutch three-point shooting, Donovan said Walsh did even more to be the game’s MVP, especially with players like Roberson, David Lee (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Christian Drejer, who didn’t have their best nights.

“I was very impressed with Christian Drejer, I was very impressed with Roberson, and David Lee, because it wasn’t going well for those guys, and they kept fighting,” he said. “I think a lot of that had to do with Matt Walsh – he got it going, and not only did it going for himself, he got our guys going because he was constantly in those guys’ ears.”

On a team with 11 freshmen and sophomores, Walsh is like a seasoned veteran, and he kept that in mind when asserting himself as a vocal leader.

“I kept trying to say the whole game that we could play with these guys,” said Walsh. “We had to believe that we were as good as this team.”

Lee sat much of the second half with cramps, taking himself out voluntarily. The junior forward did a nice job of following plays, as he got a few baskets from that and running the floor, before removing himself from the game.

Arizona has an athletic team, especially on the wing, but this game showed room to grow as the season goes along. Hassan Adams made a couple of mid-range jumpers, a key for him, and Andre Iguodala had 8 assists and 10 rebounds, but needs to be a better scorer for this team. Depth is certainly going to be a key issue for this team.

When Shakur had to sit after picking up his fourth foul, Rodgers had to play extended minutes. He took full advantage of the opportunity, handling the ball well and making long range shots. Rodgers, who averaged just over 8 minutes per game last season, should see more playing time, and with the Wildcats’ overall lack of depth, they’ll need him to play like he did tonight.

“There’s no question that Chris can play and he can defend,” said Olson. “I thought he definitely was a huge factor for us.

“Chris was a big-time scorer in high school. He just needs to learn that the open man is the guy we want shooting the shot. You can see how he can shoot the thing until he takes one he shouldn’t take, and that’s a pretty quick way to get out of the game. But I thought Chris played well in a lot of different ways.”

Shakur will also have to stay out of foul trouble as well, and should improve on that.

“When Mustafa’s in there, we’re a different team than when he’s out of there,” said Olson. “He has to learn that, at this level, you reach, you’ll get the ball five times or you’ll get four fouls. I’m sure he’ll take that away from the game. With our lack of depth to begin with, we can’t afford to have to sit guys as much as we did tonight.”

Adding to the depth issue is that Isaiah Fox pulled a hamstring and could not play in the second half.

Both teams gave the sold out crowd their money’s worth, and while each has areas for improvement, each looks to have a good season ahead.

     

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