At long last, on Saturday night, the Florida Gators played a game on Billy Donovan Court — just like they were always going to one day, someday, when the glory days were mostly memories and the old heroes could come back longer in the tooth.
They are now 1-0 on Billy Donovan Court, thanks to an 84-66 win over Vanderbilt that was almost incidental on a night that meant more for nearly every other reason.
Noah Locke stroked six threes to lead Florida with 19 points, but 28 former Gators coming to Gainesville to honor Donovan — even though it really should have been 27, with Bradley Beal, snubbed by the powers that be, forced to be in Chicago for the NBA All-Star Game.
Florida stormed out to large leads in the first half and stretched them to a 29-point edge at halftime — thanks partly to Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse, clad in a leprechaun-green suit, getting ejected just before the break — and advantages of more than 30 points before hot shooting by the Commodores in the second half finally whittled that lead back to its final margin.
The Gators got solid games from Kerry Blackshear (15 points, three boards, and five assists — an Al Horford line for the long-time Horford fan in front of Horford himself), Keyontae Johnson (11 points, six boards, three assists, three steals), and Omar Payne (five points, five offensive rebounds), and a fine supporting cameo from Ques Glover (eight points, three assists, two steals) off the bench on a night while Andrew Nembhard sat for most of the game with foul trouble.
But this was a good team playing a bad one — Vanderbilt looked out of sorts for the first 25 or so minutes before catching fire and making eight threes over the final 16:52 of play — and making that bad one look bad, like so many good Florida teams coached by Donovan did in his third extended stretch of success in his 19 years in Gainesville. With Erik Murphy and Patric Young among the Gators watching, Florida moved the ball to create great shots and sprinted every which way to throttle the Vanderbilt attack.
Donovan spoke at halftime and then again during the SEC Network broadcast in the second half, and he was as demure and circumspect as ever, paying homage to the hundreds of players and assistant coaches and other program workers whom he said he thought of when he saw his signature on the court, positioned in decals in the high post on both ends. A night that was about him and celebrating him left him visibly emotional, but not too caught up in the proceedings to not be caught on the broadcast taking pictures with fans who wanted them.
And that, more than anything, was why this epitomized Florida basketball at its Platonic ideal as much as the best days under Donovan did: It was at once a game with the Orange and Blue playing well and entertaining the masses, and a game that was not too big to have a human aspect, not too caught up in itself to not just be a bunch of people in one place, working hard toward a common goal.
Billy Donovan became a legendary coach for Florida mostly because he combined an uncommon work ethic with uncommon humility — the sort of thing that made him a common man even as his achievements increasingly marked him as anything but.
May this night be a reminder of that for longer than anyone can remember the score.