When Florida coach Billy Donovan presented center/forward David Lee with a choice between rising to the challenge of senior leadership or withering away in the final 16 games of his career, Donovan had no doubt how Lee would respond the next time he hit the court.
"I knew he was going to play well," Donovan said.
Six days after playing so poorly he was benched in a loss to Florida State and being criticized publicly by his coach, Lee responded big time Saturday afternoon.
He scored a team-high 17, pulled down seven rebounds and had five assists and two blocks to lead the Gators to an 82-74 win over Arkansas (13-2, 1-1 SEC) in front of 11,021 at the O'Connell Center.
"The one guy I thought set the stage from the get-go was David Lee," Donovan said. "For him to come back and respond with the intensity level, enthusiasm and emotion he did, I was very proud of him."
"Every possession I was living and dying today," Lee said. "I really didn't want our team to lose. As far as our team being shorthanded, I think it's really encouraging to us that we beat _ I want to reiterate _ a tremendous Arkansas team whose only loss was to Illinois. It was a very important win against a quality opponent to get (the SEC season) started."
It was a win for Florida (9-3, 1-0) without leading scorer Matt Walsh, who is out four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain, and without junior forward Adrian Moss, who has a herniated disc and played just four minutes. Arkansas had hoped to capitalize on the loss of those two.
"We're disappointed we didn't come out of here with a win," Razorbacks coach Stan Heath said. "We were confident we could come in here and steal one. We thought Florida might have a little bit of a letdown without Walsh, but that wasn't true. They stepped it up. They had five guys in double figures. It is a tribute to Florida being ready to play. They were prepared for us."
Playing with as many as four freshmen on the floor at times, Florida led 31-26 at halftime. Leading by 10 with 15:48 left, the Gators went on a 12-0 run, led by two 3-pointers from sophomore Lee Humphrey (10 points, five assists), to take a 55-40 lead with 12:33 remaining. During that stretch Lee also had a reverse layup and several key rebounds.
The big lead did not last. The Razorbacks outscored Florida 12-5 to pull within 65-55 with six minutes to go, then trailed by six with 30 seconds left. But the Gators hit 5 of 8 free throws in the final 43 seconds to hold them off.
Florida shot 14-of-18 for 77.8 percent from the field in the second half, while free-throw shooting hurt Arkansas. It was 19-of-28. The Gators didn't fare much better, hitting 27-of-38.
Arkansas guard Ronnie Brewer scored a game-high 20, Eric Ferguson added 16 and Olu Famutimi had 13.
Florida's freshmen combined for 36 points, including two in double figures _ Corey Brewer (11) and Al Horford (12).
"It's a good thing that we had that (Arkansas run) at the end," said Gators junior guard Anthony Roberson, who was 3-of-10 from the field but finished with 15 points. "We know we can overcome. We have a lot of fighters on this team, and we know we have a team that will play hard."