Finally, a game in which the Gators were tested throughout... well, if you consider a game in which the Gators led from anywhere between 10-20 points for the majority of the game a test.
Considering the way the Gators have rolled past opponents up until this point, though, Florida's 78-64 win over Mississippi on Saturday night was virtually a nail biter.
Erik Murphy scored 19, Mike Rosario put in 14 and the Gators put down the Rebels to stand pretty as the lone unbeaten in the SEC at 8-0, with Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky all looking up at them at 6-2.
The key to this win? The same that it's been all season long: the Gators have the better team in every facet of the game. Florida spread the wealth on offense, allowing its five-headed monster on the court to get fed equally, and then locked down on defense. Ole Miss relied on its star player and human time bomb, Marshall Henderson, to keep them in the game, but even a 25-point effort on his part wasn't enough to pull the Rebels through. Nor was a 15-point night from his sidekick, Murphy Holloway.
Despite Henderson's big night, this game solidified the notion that both offense and defense wins championships, and that Florida's got both.
Florida scored 78 points on the night. Mississippi averaged 80 points per game before tonight. Tonight, that scoring average would have won the game by two points.
Before tonight, there were only four times this season that Ole Miss was held below 65 points, and the Rebels won three of those games. In those three wins, their defense bailed them out.
It couldn't tonight, because, Florida's offense was hurting Ole Miss's defense whichever way it wanted to, with the defense having no idea which one of the Gator players would be the one to take the shot. Patric Young got some easy dunks; in reaction, Ole Miss would load the bottom of the paint to stop him, only to see the ball get kicked out for a Murphy three. The defense would then swing to the perimeter, and play tight, only to watch Scottie Wilbekin fly past his defender for a bunny layup.
Give Ole Miss credit, though. They didn't quit, and they stayed in the game much longer than most of Florida's opponents have so far. Mississippi is a much better indicator of the kind of team Florida will have to beat in order to cut down the nets once again in Atlanta.
And, really, coming off of some wins with truly ridiculous scores, I would not have been surprised if Florida had come into the game lazy, and full of the wrong type of confidence, the kind that says, "We can win this game blindfolded."
The Gators had a few big tests tonight, and passed them all with flying colors. They faced a desperate team with a star player who has a knack for getting emotional and getting under opponents' skin, and it was the perfect formula for a letdown game.
Instead, the Gators didn't miss a beat. They led by double figures for most of the game, and even though Ole Miss launched a last ditch comeback effort late in the second half, the Gators were ready to respond. When Murphy hit a three to end a quick 5-0 Rebel run to put Florida up 66-50 with 6:48 remaining, the game was over, and Mr. Henderson didn't get to perform the full arm-extension, Mark Ingram-style Gator Chomp you could tell he was just itching to do.
In the standings, this win means no more than the 75-36 comedy show against South Carolina, and no less. It's a win in the SEC in 2013; those aren't worth much. But in terms of confidence and experience, it means the world to Florida.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Gators are going to play a very low quality team in the first round, and a much better team in the second round. The difference between Long Island and Pittsburgh is glaringly apparent, and the Gators will have to adjust from the former to the latter (or the likes of them) in a two day span. That is a lot like the transition from a bad SEC team to Mississippi, and there's a lot to like about how the Gators handled the transition facing them tonight.
The fact that the Gators have done it once has to make Gator fans everywhere feel good about their chances of doing it again.