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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The banners were strange. They were painted black with a diamond-shaped logo that doesn't belong in the O'Connell Center. They read "National Invitation Tournament" and spoke of postseason dreams, but not the postseason dreams with shining moments and the usual Madness.

Only 4,350 fans showed up to watch UF brush Jacksonville aside 84-62 on Wednesday night, but the rest of Gator Nation missed the team announcing to the country that it's ready to accept college basketball's consolation prize. After all, that's all that's left for the Gators.

"There's nothing else we can do," forward Dan Werner said. "We're in this tournament. When you're a competitor, your goal is always to win."

So what if the NIT is the NCAA Tournament's weird little brother no one pays attention to? UF is in it to win it.

Nobody would blame this Gators team for dogging it up and down the court at this point in the season. After a 16-2 start that looked incredibly promising, the bottom fell out, and the NIT became their playoffs.

But instead, the Gators ran hard, sweated on defense, drove to the basket, slammed home dunks and fought for rebounds in the game's waning moments.

For those of you who couldn't make it to the game - and there are a lot of people who fit that description - and for those of you dismayed that television executives decided this game didn't merit airing, you missed a team that is not ready to give up on its season.

You missed sophomore forward Chandler Parsons getting absolutely manhandled on a dunk attempt, falling to the floor as a Jacksonville player blocked his shot with authority. Parsons didn't hang his head - on the next possession, he hit a three.

You missed freshman guard Erving Walker, with UF up by 10 points early, diving to save balls from going out of bounds on two occasions.

You missed freshman forward Ray Shipman take a brutal foul down low, slam his shoulder and wrist into the hardwood, not make a fuss and hit two free throws.

You missed Parsons being on the receiving end of an unnecessary and possibly intentional shove right after that and not retaliating as a technical foul was called on Jacksonville. Instead, he just walked to his bench, clapping in the guilty Dolphin's face.

"They were out of the game by that time," Shipman said. "But we're not going to let them push us around. We were pushing, too. I don't want to let them think they're getting the best of us by pushing us."

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Moments like those build team unity, and this is a team that needs some of that after a disappointing end to the regular season. They're united now. They knocked off Jacksonville with ease, and they know what's ahead.

"I just know we're playing Miami on Friday," center Alex Tyus said. "If we play our game, we can beat anybody."

If they can play with as much effort for the rest of the NIT as they did tonight against an admittedly outmatched team, there's no doubt the Gators can bring another banner back to the O'Connell Center. It won't be the banner fans have come to expect, and it won't be the banner the team wanted at the beginning of the season, but it would be a banner nonetheless.

It's a banner this team wants to win.

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