Walker scales UCLA's height, lifts Florida into Sweet 16
TAMPA, Fla. -- By weight, UCLA center Josh Smith -- who said Friday that his most recent glance at the scale showed 323 pounds -- is 1.89 Erving Walkers. Walker, Florida's junior guard, is listed at 5-foot-8. That makes Walker 1.21
So as Walker careened into the biggest mismatch in a lifetime of mismatches, it didn't seem the least bit surprising that just before he heaved the ball at the rim, the top of Walker's head failed to clear Smith's waistband.
It never occurred to the fun-sized Walker that he was too small to drive straight at the largest human being in the NCAA tournament. Such thoughts don't cross his mind, because he has spent his entire career ignoring the people who said he was too small.
"I've heard it my whole life," Walker said Friday. "You're too short to play."
He heard it in middle school. He heard it in high school. Had he been inside Gators' coach Billy Donovan's head the first time Donovan checked out the Brooklyn native at Christ the King High, Walker would have heard it again. "You've got to be kidding me," Donovan remembered thinking. "This guy is like 5-foot-2."
Saturday, Walker ignored everyone again. He drove at Smith and tossed in a runner that gave Florida a five-point lead with 3:58 remaining in a seesaw game. Later, Walker would score Florida's final seven points to ice a 73-65 win that sent the Gators to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the national title run of 2007.
"I thought he fouled me. I felt a lot of contact," Walker said. "So I just tried to get the ball up on the rim. I was expecting a call, but I didn't get it. Luckily, it went in."
After the win, Florida forward Patric Young revealed the thoughts that crossed his mind when he saw Walker try to scale the man-mountain.
"Just get fouled," Young said. "Don't get the shot blocked."
Of course Young would think that. The freshman, a 2010 McDonald's All-American, stands 6-9 and weighs a chiseled 245 pounds. Put it this way: if Young ever visits Florence, Michelangelo's statue of David will step down from his pedestal and ask him for workout tips. Young has never had to imagine challenging someone a foot taller and twice as heavy.
All his life, Walker has had to dream bigger.
"That's all I know," Walker said. "I don't know how it feels to be 6-4."
Years of facing Goliath have stripped away any trepidation. "Erv is fearless," Gators forward Chandler Parsons said. That's why he takes -- and makes -- shots that look impossible. "He's Big Shot Erv," said guard Scotty Wilbekin.
For better or worse. Two years ago in this very building, the Gators rode the bubble into the SEC tournament. Down three to Auburn with the clock dwindling, Erv thought he'd lined up another big shot. He rose from the wing for three, but 6-3 Auburn guard Quantez Robertson rose as well.
Saturday, almost every Gator stopped to hug Walker. His shot over Smith -- who might have defended more aggressively if he didn't already have four fouls -- might have been his most dramatic act, but it wasn't the only critical play he made down the stretch.
With a little more than three minutes remaining, Lazeric Jones burst across midcourt, where he was met by Wilbekin. Sensing an opportunity, Walker joined his freshman teammate in the harassment of Jones. Jones dropped the ball out of bounds, and the Gators converted with a Vernon Macklin layup that gave them a 66-60 lead with 2:49 remaining.
After UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt hit a three-pointer and Smith made a layup to slash Florida's lead to one, the Gators had an inbound play from the baseline. Wilbekin hurled the pass toward midcourt. At best, it was a 50-50 ball. If UCLA's Malcolm Smith intercepted it, he would have run unmolested for a layup that would have given the Bruins the lead. Walker, looking like the world's tiniest slot receiver, fought off Lee and caught Wilbekin's pass. Then he dribbled ahead and drilled a three-pointer that gave Florida a four-point lead with 1:14 remaining.
Donovan still wants to see Walker play with that kind of fire for 40 minutes. That's why the coach rides Walker mercilessly during games. He knows if he pushes the correct button, he can tickle Walker's Napoleon complex and turn him into a giant. Perhaps Donovan, a former undersized point guard, sees a little bit of himself in Walker.
That's why a coach who has spent his career looking up at his players gave a scholarship to a guy he towered over. "He obviously grew a little," Donovan said with a smile.
Saturday, Walker grew even more. By the time the ball sailed over Smith's fingertips and into the net, Walker was playing 10 feet tall.