GAINESVILLE — When you're down and nothing seems to be going your way, there are really only two ways to go. You can stay there. Or you can pick yourself up and try to turn things around.
Coming off back-to-back national championships in basketball, Florida's failure to make the NCAA Tournament and its subsequent invite to the NIT was about as down as the Gators could get.
So Wednesday night, they tried to pick themselves up.
Led by 18 points from sophomore center Marreese Speights and 16 points from freshman guard Nick Calathes, the Gators defeated San Diego State 73-49 in the first round of the NIT at the O'Connell Center.
The victory came in front of a season-low 5,188, with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick attending with his friend, UF football coach Urban Meyer. Belichick smiled when students chanted "18-1'' and "Giants'' at him.
Florida (22-11) plays Creighton (22-10), a 74-73 winner over Rhode Island, Friday at 9:30 p.m. in Gainesville.
Florida ended a four-game losing streak and the win came less than a week after coach Billy Donovan banished players from their locker room and multimillion dollar practice facility and sent them to the O'Dome practice court following an embarrassing first-round loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament. Donovan also banned them from wearing UF gear on campus or in practices.
"We don't want to be back there; we have to earn it," sophomore forward Dan Werner said. "Just because of one game, it doesn't mean you earn it."
Donovan said players hadn't earned the spoils they were enjoying, but he was pleased with their effort Wednesday.
"I'm really, really proud of our guys," Donovan said. "I thought these guys really focused in and came with the right mindset. It was good to see them get rewarded."
San Diego State lacked the things that have hampered Florida all season: size inside, a 3-point threat and a stifling defense.
Florida led 35-23 at halftime. With 15:48 left in the game, Ryan Amaroso's 3-pointer pulled San Diego State within 41-32. But the Gators took control for good with a 14-2 run.
Florida shot 53.4 percent from the field, 43 percent on 3-pointers, and outrebounded San Diego State 35-22.
"We're nowhere near where we want to be right now, but our goal is to get better," Calathes said. "There has never been an NIT champion at Florida. We still have a chance to make history."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.