Gators send Hodge out a winner
On Friday afternoon, Walter Hodge had his No. 15 jersey added to the wall in the Florida practice facility - a wall that includes the jerseys of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green.
On Saturday, he asked his teammates to do him one big favor: help him walk off the O'Connell Center floor one last time as a winner.
He took the lead, and they followed.
On a day when he was honored in a pregame ceremony, Hodge scored a game-high 18 to lead Florida to a 60-53 win over struggling Kentucky in front of 12,131 at the O’Connell Center.
The win ended a three-game losing streak and secured third place in the SEC East for the Gators (22-9, 9-7). Florida will play Arkansas Thursday at 9:45 p.m. in the first round of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Kentucky (19-12, 8-8) has now lost four consecutive and finished fourth in the East.
The victory also keeps the Gators’ slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive, something that wasn’t lost on Hodge after the game.
“This was my last game in the O’Dome,’’ Hodge said, alluding to the possibility of hosting an NIT game. I was determined to win the game today. This is my last game over here so I told those guys we can do this. I told those guys to play for me and they did a great job.’’
Kentucky senior guard Jodie Meeks, who leads the SEC in scoring with 25 points per game, scored 15 and had five rebounds, but was 2-of-9 from 3-point range. Sophomore center Patrick Patterson had 16 points and 13 rebounds, but took just one shot in the second half.
“I thought we competed really well, we just didn’t execute well,’’ UK coach Billy Gillispie said. “I’m very proud of their effort.’’
Florida shot 38.9 percent from the field, but leading scorer Nick Calathes had just five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Florida hit eight 3-pointers, Kentucky was just 2-of-11.
“The 3-point line and free throws (UF was 10-of-13, UK 5-of-10) was probably the difference,’’ UF coach Billy Donovan said of a game he described as so physical they should have played it in the football stadium. “Nothing was coming easy for us, nothing was coming easy for them. I thought today was one of those days where you walked off the court and as a coach you thought, ‘our team really battled.’ ‘’
For the players, beating Kentucky was nice. Winning for Hodge meant more.
“We wanted to win for Walter, that was the main thing,’’ said sophomore center Alex Tyus, who was 5-of-8 from the field and had 11 points.
Added Dan Werner: “Walt’s a winner in every aspect of life and we just wanted to send him out like that.’’
Hodge was joined in the pregame ceremony by his father, mother, wife and daughter.
I'm glad he played at Florida,'' said his father, Walter Sr. "He's had a great career and accomplished a lot.''
Hodge's father said his son has gotten strong interest from a pro team in Spain. He plans to hire an agent to represent him after his college career ends to handle negotiations.
Hodge may not be the last family member to play for the Gators. His younger brother Wallece, 17, is considering enrolling at Sante Fe Community College in Gainesville in the fall and said he would like to follow in his brother's footsteps.