Patric Young watched Scotty Wilbekin drive for a layup, then stared in horror as the easiest shot in basketball caromed off the rim. He got over his shock quickly enough to grab the ball and slam it down.
Then he stared at the Georgia fans as if to say, "What are you gonna do about it, huh?"
Sadly for Georgia fans, there was nothing they could do, nor was there anything the UGA players could do as the Gators erased a terrible first half to avoid becoming the victims of perhaps the biggest upset on a night filled with them.
This was by far the worst game Florida has played since it began its conference slate. It didn't really matter tonight, because Georgia is one of the worst teams in the nation and they know it, but it could matter in March against a very low seeded team that won its off the map conference and would love nothing more than to become the next Norfolk State.
But it's OK for tonight. Teams aren't always going to play their best games, even in March. It's the teams that find ways to win no matter what that are successful. Take a look at the past few national champions. They all got tested at some point or another in the NCAA Tournament. True, those teams are probably better than Georgia, but it's the same idea- you're clearly not playing well, but you grind and fight and no matter how off you were, you're the one that's going to play another game, not them.
This was a great test for Florida. They have been absolutely manhandling everybody in their way, except for the two losses to two very good teams. This bunch may be the most talented team in Gator history- and that's saying something considering that three of the starting five from the back to back championship team a few years ago have prominent roles in the NBA. These guys were blowing everybody out, no matter how good they were... until tonight.
Georgia fought. Give them credit. I hate Georgia even more than I hate FSU, so I'm the last guy you'll ever find giving Georgia any type of compliment. But you have to hand it to them. They gave Florida a good push. They made their threes (7-12), locked down on defense (64 points, which is the third fewest Florida has scored all year), and played smart.
So Georgia was playing well, and Florida wasn't. The Gators' sheer talent kept them in the game the first half, but it clearly wasn't going to be enough to win it- they never led in the first half. I really thought the Gators were going to lose- I said to myself, this is the Rutgers game from last year all over again. Or the Georgia game (in Athens) from last year. Or either of the Tennessee games... or the Vanderbilt game....
The point is, there were too many of those games last year, where Florida sleepwalked the entire way through against a clearly outmatched opponent. This game had the exact same formula as each one of those- the other team starts hot, Florida knows they're better, and only play as well as they think they have to in order to win. Almost always, Florida underestimates how well they have to play in order to win, and they don't figure that out until it's too late.
Tonight it happened again. The Gators went through the motions for the entire first half. Unlike last year, however, there was a switch that just clicked on during halftime. Maybe it was something Billy Donovan said, or maybe each player individually vowed to play with some determination in the second half. Whatever it was sure worked, because the Gators played with a fire and passion in the second half that they sorely lacked in the first. The score almost exactly reflected that: Florida won the first meeting between these teams by 33, and played a solid 40 minutes. They beat Georgia tonight by 17, and played a solid 20 minutes.
These Gators have a self confidence about them now, an aura of invincibility. This team carries itself with the knowledge that it can beat anybody it plays, and easily, and this year, these guys play like they need to re-earn this distinction each and every night. Patric Young epitomized it by slamming down a dunk and then staring down the UGA fans in the corner. Nothing can touch these Gators. Not even a team that's won three out of the last four against them on their home court.
So while they didn't play their best, they definitely earned this victory. No team plays with its A game 100% of the time. But the championship caliber teams find ways to win anyway. Georgia gave Florida its best shot, in a hostile environment, and the Gators scrapped and clawed and came out with a 64-47 victory.
On a night when #1 Duke, #9 Butler, #12 Minnesota and #17 Creighton were all upset, the Gators prevailed. Those other teams were all exposed tonight. They don't bring the same swagger to the court that the Gators do day in and day out. Those teams will likely be upset victims in the NCAA Tournament, too. I'll bet none of them make the Final Four, and I say no more than one of them make the Sweet 16.
On the other hand, I'll bet Florida will make the Final Four based on 17 games of work.
There's another reason why this team is equipped to major damage in the Big Dance, and it's more frightening than the previous reason.
Florida doesn't have a superstar player, like a Jimmer Fredette type guy that can score 40 points without breaking a sweat. Instead, they have a solid team all around, with each and every player fully possessing the ability to completely take over a game. Erik Murphy might be missing his threes, but there's Young to grab the board and slam it home. Maybe Young isn't feeling too well, he can't get going, and the defense covers him well and blankets Murphy. That's when Mike Rosario comes in to make a few clutch threes, or Kenny Boynton for that matter.
There are five players the opposing team has to keep an eye out for at all times. There isn't one player a defense has to double team, but that's even more dangerous for them- now there are five guys that can just take over, and they don't know which one it is. Or even better for Florida, everybody could pitch in a solid effort and blow the other team away, much like the Gators did to Missouri.
It's the part about not knowing that will kill opponents in March. You can't draw up a defensive gameplan to stop Florida because you don't know what Florida is going to be in the mood for. It's a pick your poison type game, and Billy Donovan doesn't particularly care which of his players are lighting up the scoreboard.
Even on an off night, it works. Scotty Wilbekin singlehandedly kept the Gators in the game the entire first half, and in the second half, with Georgia keying on Wilbekin, Murphy and Boynton heated up and before Georgia knew it, their lead was gone and they were being buried deeper and deeper into a hole they never got out of.
That's what I call a "team".
On another note... there's just something about beating Georgia, in pretty much any sport, that feels so good. Which is great, because this series is dominated by Florida all around, even including the last two years' football games.
Florida has now won 17 out of the last 20 basketball games with Georgia. Doesn't that sound familiar? Oh, that's right, Florida has also won 18 out of the last 23 football games with Georgia. This rivalry is like a tequila sunrise: orange on top, red on the bottom. Too bad it's the Gators who get to raise the final toast in this year's version of the World's Largest Indoor Cocktail Party.
Georgia shouldn't feel bad, though. Billy D is a nice enough man to share. He'll be sure to leave the backwash in the Bulldogs' bowl for them to lap up tomorrow morning.
But in any case, Florida got the win, which is great. Road wins in the SEC are truly precious, and the Gators will be sure to savor it until they meet the third set of Bulldogs on their schedule this weekend. It should be another great test for Florida. The Gators get Roquez Johnson and Mississippi State twice, but this first one is in Starkville.
If the Gators play with the swagger they showed tonight (and most of the season), MSU will be Gatorbait.