By Chris McManes
GAINESVILLE, FLA. – When Catholic University Men's Basketball Coach Steve Howes opened up the sports section of the Gainesville Sun, the front page contained a photo of Florida Coach Billy Donovan and his son, Billy, a Cardinal sophomore. The headline read, "Father's Day."
The visibility that CUA garnered this week, not only for its basketball team, but also the entire university, would have cost a small fortune to purchase. Numerous print and online articles were supplemented by the broadcast of the game on radio and multiple stories on TV. Even the housekeeping supervisor at the Cards' hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, saw a story about the Donovans on a local news station.
"It's great for our university," Howes said. "We were in the media more in the last week than we will be all year."
Howes would have liked the final score of Wednesday's game to be closer than 114-57, but he knew going in that his team would be overmatched by one of the top clubs in the nation. The Gators are a consensus top 10 team that should go far in the NCAA Tournament.
"To be able to test ourselves against the best, that's pretty special," Howes said.
Florida was sizzling from the perimeter, particularly in the first half, when it sank 14 of 24 3-pointers. They finished 20 of 40 from beyond the arc and 40 of 70 overall. The Gators' athleticism was evident in another stat that reflects its superior athleticism: 16 steals. The Cardinals managed just three.
"I made the comment that we're explosive offensively and certainly we got it going the first half, but I was even more pleased with the unselfishness with 31 assists," Coach Donovan said. "Those guys are playing together and looking out for each other."
On the plus side for the Cards, Donovan and junior Nate Koenig competed strong throughout the contest. Donovan scored a team-high 13 points and added four rebounds and three assists. Koenig came off the bench and tallied 10 points and five rebounds. He was 3 of 4 from the field.
"We tried to take the game in four-minute segments and win, or come as close to winning, as many four-minute segments that we could," Howes said. "We tied one in the first half; we won two in the second half. We weren't looking for moral victories; we were looking for victories in those four minutes to see who would play fundamental basketball.
"And if we could play fundamental basketball against one of the best teams in the country, then we should be able to do it at the Division III level. And Billy and Nate certainly did that tonight. Nate really stepped up for us. He and Billy's improvement has been tremendous since last year."
Coach Donovan was also pleased with his son's play.
"I was really, really proud of him; I thought he played aggressive," he said. "I think it was a hard situation for him to walk into. I really did not know what to expect. The thing that I was most pleased with was that he was not overwhelmed in the situation. I think he just tried to do what the coaches and his team asked him to do. He played really well.
"He did a great job, and I think he has a great opportunity to have a great career there."
Howes views the game as a steppingstone in the Cardinals' process of establishing its own identity and continuing to improve. The team viewed a DVD of the game and shot free throws at Florida's basketball practice facility Friday morning. Both the game and the video revealed a lot to the CUA coaching staff.
"You get to see guys play under pressure – real pressure," Howes said. "We had some guys execute and step up; we had some other guys that need to improve. And that's what this is about. Hopefully we can compete a little bit better than we did at times in the first half."
Donovan enjoyed the warm ovation he received when he was introduced in the starting lineup.
"That was really special," he said. "I pretty much grew up here; it's all I remember. These are some of the greatest fans that I've seen, and hearing that was really special."
Howes said he was proud of his team, which will begin the regular season at a tournament in Carlisle, Pa., on Nov. 18.
"They're first class, high-character guys and they work hard," he said. "They have dreams to hold the national championship trophy, just like the Gators do."
Cardinals Meet Star of Florida's National Championship Teams
The Cardinals received a special treat during their visit to Florida's practice facility Friday before departing for the airport in Orlando. Chicago Bulls power forward Joakim Noah was in town working on his game with his college coach, Billy Donovan. Noah was one of the stars of the Gators' 2006 and 2007 National Championship teams. Part of the playing floor Florida won the titles on hangs on the walls of the men's practice court.
Noah posed for a photo with the Cards and Coach Steve Howes and then talked with the team after his strenuous post-moves workout with Donovan. CUA Assistant Coach Ryan Hyland and his brother, T.J., a sophomore manager, have met Noah many times. They all attended Poly Prep in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Koenig Enjoys the Experience
Nate Koenig, who worked out often during the summer when teammate Billy Donovan was serving a six-week government internship in Washington, had a great time on the trip. In addition to the excitement of playing on the home court of a two-time national champion, the team practiced twice at Florida's practice facility, had dinner at the Donovans and received a tour of the Gator's football stadium, affectionately known as "The Swamp."
"Everybody grows up wanting to play on this level, and you get to that point in high school where you do realize that you're going to be a Division III basketball player and not going to be playing at Florida your whole life," Koenig said. "And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've had a great experience playing D-III basketball; I wouldn't trade it for the world. But it's always nice to play teams like this and play in front of thousands of people instead of a few hundred.
"Again, I wouldn't trade it for the world. I love D-III basketball and I love Catholic. I love playing on the level I play on, but it's always nice to get a little piece of what they get to experience every single game."
For more on CUA's trip to Gainesville, click here.
Chris McManes is a former CUA sports information director.
Photos by Chris McManes and Ron Irby