TAMPA — Erving Walker was a freshman shooting guard in 2009 when he left the floor at the St. Pete Times Forum in tears after his desperation final shot was blocked in a second-round SEC tournament game against Auburn.
The loss ended any hope the Gators had of making the NCAA Tournament that season.
Fast forward two years — to Saturday afternoon and the Gators' third-round NCAA Tournament game against storied UCLA.
Florida needed Walker again. And this time, he didn't let his team down.
Walker scored 10 of Florida's final 12, including four consecutive clutch free throws to help the No. 2-seeded Gators to a 73-65 victory over No. 7 UCLA in front of 17,771 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Florida (28-7) advances to play BYU on Thursday in New Orleans in a Southeast Region semifinal. It will be the Gators' seventh Sweet 16 appearance and fifth under coach Billy Donovan. It was UF's third victory in three meetings against the Bruins.
With the Gators holding precariously to a 66-65 lead after UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt hit a 3-pointer with 2:34 remaining, Walker took over. He scored the Gators' final seven, the only player on either team to score in the final 1:14 of the game.
"He really played well," Donovan said.
"I thought he was out of sorts a little bit in the first half. He had a couple plays where he took a bad 3 and then he had a drive that got blocked, and both those plays led to free throws and fouls for our frontcourt. I was pretty hard on him during the game and at halftime because I really felt like he was going to need to step up, not so much making shots but just when he's got his engine running and he's got that fire and that passion, I think it changes the complexion of our team and opens up things for other guys on our team."
And it wasn't just the fact that Walker was making shots. It was how. His game-high 21 points included using his 5-foot-8 frame to drive the lane into UCLA's 6-10, 320-pound freshman center Josh Smith — and as Walker crashed to the floor from Smith's stomach, his floater went in. And it included a 3-pointer off an inbounds pass from Scottie Wilbekin in which he dribbled while looking out of the corner of his eye before hitting the shot that gave UF a 69-65 lead.
"For him to drive on a guy like Smith that's 6-10 and 300-some pounds and still get the shot off and make it, that's a great momentum changer for Erv and for the team," senior center Vernon Macklin said. "How many players do you see who can do that? He's 5-8 and he plays like he's 6-7 if you ask me. He's a great player, and he's relentless. I think he has one of the biggest hearts on the team."
UCLA (23-11) trailed by two at halftime but outscored Florida 10-6 in the first four minutes of the second half to take a 43-41 lead with 15:34 remaining in the game.
From there, the two battled back and forth, with neither leading by more than four until late in the game. Florida shot 50 percent from the field for the 10th time this season.
"I was really proud of the way we played today," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We gave ourselves a great chance there, down one with 40-some seconds to go, and went for a long steal, we missed, and the little guy played great down the stretch for them, Walker, burned us with it. He really did a great job down the stretch for their team. You know, we were right there, and the thing was going back and forth a lot there late in the game."
After the game, Walker was asked if he has any nicknames. Told that his teammate Kenny Boynton suggested "Big Shot, Erv," Walker responded: "I had a couple, but we can just go with what Kenny said. I like that one."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.