When Eastern Illinois coach Rick Samuels casts his votes in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll next week, there's no doubt Florida will remain among his top teams.
Having seen the Gators first-hand Thursday night, Samuels said the team was much more impressive than television and game tape can relay.
Relying on better than 50 percent shooting from the field and tenacious team defense _ including a school-record 14 blocks _ No. 8 Florida defeated Eastern Illinois 99-65 in front of 9,460 at the O'Connell Center in the Preseason NIT.
"I already had them in the Top 10 and I've got a long memory. They are going to be there for a long time," Samuels said. "I thought the freshmen played like veterans. The experience they are getting right now is going to be really valuable when their (injured) players return."
With senior Brett Nelson out with a fractured leg, junior Bonell Colas nursing a hamstring injury and freshman Christian Drejer battling a foot infection, the Gators played with a predominantly young lineup for the second straight game. At one point four freshmen and a senior were on the floor together.
After Tuesday's season opener, coach Billy Donovan was eager to see if the freshmen could play with the same level of intensity on one day's rest.
They played better.
Freshmen Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson scored 20 each. Walsh added nine assists and five steals. It was the first time two freshmen had 20 points in one game since March 5, 1981.
Sophomore David Lee had the first double double of his career (19 points, 11 rebounds) and senior Matt Bonner added 15 points and five rebounds. Freshman Rashid Al-Kaleem also had 11.
"I was very, very pleased with how our team played tonight," Donovan said. "I was very happy with their unselfishness. Those two young guys gave us a great lift."
Florida had 32 assists on 39 shots, including 15 of its first 19 baskets. The Gators also had more blocks (14) than turnovers (10).
With senior guard Justin Hamilton as the primary defender, Florida held Eastern Illinois guard Henry Domercant scoreless until he hit a layup and free throw with 16:03 left in the second half. Hamilton scored three, but kept Domercant in check all night.
"I want to win. That is my purpose," Hamilton said. "I knew that shutting him down would be the key to our victory. I didn't do it alone. It was a total team effort."
Domercant averaged 36 points and had scored in double figures 62 of 63 games. He finished with 7 points, 7 turnovers and 10 rebounds.
"I consider myself an All-American candidate, and my team really needed me to play like an All-American tonight," Domercant said. "I didn't get the job done. I thought I let my team down in a lot of ways."
Florida opened with a 13-2 run in five minutes, holding the Panthers to 1-of-9 from the field.
But Eastern Illinois (1-1) responded. Led by center Jesse Mackinson, who had a team-high 21, the Panthers went on an 11-0 run to make it 18-13 with 10:30 left.
The Gators then went on a 15-3 run to eliminate any hope for the Panthers.
Florida forced 17 turnovers that led to 19 points and held the Panthers to 33 percent from the field and 4-of-11 from 3-point range.
The Gators shot 53.4 percent from the field.
Florida (2-0) will play host to Coastal Carolina on Sunday before heading to New York to play Stanford on Wednesday in the Preseason NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
"We are trying to start (the season) off by winning a championship," Roberson said. "This is our first chance at a championship, and that is how we are going to go at it. We aren't satisfied with just going to New York. We know we have more business to take care of. Just getting there makes me happy, but I also want to win."