Florida could have let this one, the latest tough one in Knoxville against a Tennessee team that plays nothing but tough ones against Florida at home, slip, could have let up at any of many junctures, could have given away this win by giving up. After Tennessee blitzed Florida with a 30-14 run to take a six-point lead early, after Patric Young drew his third foul and had to sit early in the second half, after a field goal drought that stretched on and on in the game's final 10 minutes, after a missed shot up six with just under two minutes left: There were chances.
Young didn't do that on that shot — the only thing he gave up was his body, throwing all of his 250 pounds and extending every inch of his 6'9" frame on a dive for the rebound. He got that rebound by not giving up.
Florida got its 67-58 win over Tennessee, the first for the Gators on Rocky Top since 2011, and just the second since 2005, by doing the same. Few Florida wins in recent memory have felt this good.
Scottie Wilbekin opened the game playing snapdragon defense, making all four of his steals in the game's first five minutes that helped Florida begin on a 10-2 run. He finished with 21 points — a career high — by making the biggest of his 17 shots, a dagger three, to put Florida up seven with 2:27 to go, and 10 of his 12 free throws. And he made a floater at the end of the first half that cut Tennessee's lead to one point heading into the locker room, dished six assists, and frustrated Jordan McRae. It's hard to call a 5-for-17 night a player's best ever, but Wilbekin was great far more often than he was awful, and wore his cape well.
Every other Florida player was more or less in Wilbekin's orbit on this night, but almost every one of them did something important. Young had just six points and six rebounds, and fouled out of the game in the final minute, but his buckets mattered and that rebound was seismic. Casey Prather had just nine points, and one of his two makes on the night was an unexpected three, and his quicksilver drives were stoppered by Tennessee's long-armed defenders, but he grabbed eight rebounds to compensate. Michael Frazier II took just six threes, well under his recent average — but he drained three of them, including one to put Florida up four with less than three minutes left. Will Yeguete's six points and five boards were quiet, but he drew a pair of crucial fouls that got needed stoppages, and hit a three.
The bench chipped in, too: Dorian Finney-Smith went 1-for-6, but had five rebounds — one an offensive board just after Young's layout — three assists, and a steal along with his four points; Kasey Hill had four points, but two of them came on a brilliant steal that he took coast-to-coast; hell, DeVon Walker had two threes and a steal. The only Florida player not to do much was Chris Walker, who looked lost at both ends when pressed into service by foul trouble for Young late in the first half — and he still had three rebounds.
Florida made just 36.2 percent of its shots on the night, and was terrible inside the arc, where it is usually best, making 13 of 43 (30.2 percent) of its two-pointers. Florida's defense was average at best in the first half, as Tennessee made all manner of tough shots — a Josh Richardson turnaround stepback from 20 feet, a contested face-up jumper from Jarnell Stokes — en route to 34 points in the first 20 minutes. Stokes, as always, hammered Florida down low, getting 20 points and 11 rebounds.
But the Gators would not lose this game: Tennessee had to win it. And with the Gators picking Jeronne Maymon's pocket all night (eight turnovers) and thrashing late (Florida closed on a 12-4 run), that did not happen on this night.
This, more than the handful of close games against good teams that Florida has already won this year, is the game Florida would have lost in past years. The Gators wouldn't have started both halves on runs (10-2 in the first half, 9-2 in the second), or Tennessee's run in the first half would have put things out of reach early; the drought — there's always a drought — would have coincided with a couple of big threes from the Vols, or Florida would have failed to make a couple of hustle plays; the threes the Florida point guards would have launched late in possessions wouldn't have gone in, or free throws would have left the back door open.
Florida did not lose this game. Florida won it. And, maybe, after spending years fearing failure and disappointment from teams almost this good for so long, there's nothing for us to fear about these Gators.
Maybe, this year, the fear is for everyone else.