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This is one day Haslem owns

In the shadow of the giant, Udonis Haslem appeared lost.

Already his jaw was slack, and his mouth was open, and his eyes were rolling toward a scoreboard that leaned in the wrong direction. There was frustration in his features, and some confusion. If you looked hard enough, perhaps you thought you saw doubt, too.

It was early in the game, and it appeared Haslem was not going to be able to measure up, which essentially meant the Florida Gators might be asked to move along.

Oh, Haslem was trying. But every time he tried to make eye contact with Western Kentucky's 7-foot-1 Chris Marcus, he looked like a tourist staring at the top of a very tall building. Haslem would try to shoot, and Marcus would swat the ball away. Haslem would try to rebound, and Marcus would outreach him. In the first half, Haslem had six points and five turnovers.

In short, Haslem was awful. Horrible. Terrible. He would retreat back down the court swearing at himself. He was ashamed, he said later. He was embarrassed.

And so it went. Haslem kept running, kept swearing, kept pushing, kept trying.

And Marcus began to run slower and breathe faster. And then he was 6-10, and then he was 6-8, and then he was 6-4. And by the time the Gators were in gear, Marcus was invisible. At the beginning of the game, Marcus was Godzilla. By the end, he was the Geico lizard.

This is the lesson in the Gators' opening-round win, 69-56 over Western Kentucky on Friday afternoon. You keep pushing. You forget about the bad play behind you and move on to the good play ahead of you. Most of all, you keep running until the opponent is doubled over, because how tall can a player be as he grabs his knees in exhaustion?

This, too, is the lesson of Haslem and the chestful of intangibles he brings to his team. And the way he took an awful, forgettable day and turned it into something he may remember forever.

"Udonis Haslem is all about all the right things," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He's one of the greatest players I've ever coached. He is totally, 100 percent committed to winning. He's a great, great college player."

On the other hand, Marcus has a chance to be a great, great (or at least good, good) professional player. Donovan refers to him as one of the top centers in the country. Although he has played only three competitive seasons, Marcus eventually will be a lottery pick in the NBA draft (followed by 11 seasons in which he will make little impact for six teams).

Such was the load that Haslem, 5 inches shorter, had to contend with. No one talks about Haslem's pro career in such glowing terms. Haslem is not quite tall enough, and his perimeter game isn't quite good enough. What he owns is tenacity, competitiveness and intelligence.

Oh, yeah. And by the end of Friday's game, he owned Marcus, too.

It is a rare gift for an athlete, being able to turn a terrible day into a wonderful one. Haslem did that. He refused to accept that this game belonged to Marcus, and by the end, it belonged to him. He scored 18 points in the second half, and he got seven rebounds, and he made only one other turnover. He took a 44-42 lead and over the next six minutes scored nine of the Gators' 18 points as Florida pulled away.

For the game, Marcus ended with 14 points and 16 rebounds. Haslem had 24 points and 11 rebounds.

"Most basketball players live in the past," Donovan said. "They make a turnover, and that's what they're thinking about. Udonis is able to move on. I wasn't worried about him."

Oh, Haslem was. He kept admonishing himself as he ran downcourt. It didn't matter that he was 5 inches shorter than Marcus. It didn't matter that other Gators were playing poorly, too. Haslem was playing poorly, and to Haslem, that was unforgivable.

"I was ashamed of the way I was playing," he said. "I was embarrassed. I kept thinking about (teammate) Brent Wright. I didn't want his career to end on an injury and a first-round loss. I felt like I was letting my teammates down."

Often, basketball is a game of size. Often, it is a game of skills. Players such as Haslem turn it into a game of survival. They don't go away. They kept pushing, running, bumping and refusing to give in to the bad times. Marcus won 10 minutes; Haslem won the day.

Such things don't surprise Donovan anymore. Oh, they did. Haslem came to Florida from a great Miami High School team, the least heralded of a four-player recruiting class. But from the first day, Haslem showed the kind of relentles qualities that have made him special.

Who knows about his future? Even Haslem says that if a pro career is to come, it will be from scratching and pounding and knowing how to play the game. Donovan is convinced that when it is time, that will be enough. Marcus, meanwhile, will make millions.

Haslem, however, will have Friday.

As he walked off the court, a winning scoreboard over his shoulder, it seemed like enough.

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