There were only two chances left, realistically, for Florida to win the 500th game of Billy Donovan's career on the court that could someday bear his name. The Gators could do it on this Saturday, against Tennessee, or on Tuesday, in a Senior Night contest that will honor Florida's lone four-year senior, Jacob Kurtz, a year after four of them walked off the floor unbeaten in SEC play.
These Gators decided not to leave Donovan's milestone to the last moment. And their resounding 66-49 triumph was as perfect a win as Donovan's 500th could have been.
This was vintage Billyball early on. Florida would shoot nearly 60 percent from the field on the night, but the Gators were as great as Beyoncé from three in the first half, sinking seven of 11 triples, and led by 18 — by a 40-22 count — at the break, after a 9-0 blitz to close the half. Florida cooled off in the second half after building a 23-point lead, but it successfully avoided the early pitfalls that have felled it time after time this year, and the Gators held their lead for all but a couple minutes of the 40 in this game.
It was disciplined late-era Donovan defense — the brand that Florida has played since the last years in his program's history without NCAA Tournament trips — that smothered the Vols all night, making that possible. Tennessee made four of 14 threes, committed 14 turnovers, and got just six offensive rebounds two days after getting 18 against Vanderbilt, a team with much more timber up front than Florida has. The Gators didn't press Tennessee to death, as they might have in previous years; they matched up in man defense and allowed few good chances all night.
It was a quintessential Donovan player — Dorian Finney-Smith, who transferred from Virginia Tech to find a program where he could be developed and dominate, and who has had a rocky road of sorts in orange and blue — who led the charge on this night, with 20 points and 10 rebounds off the bench in his return from suspension. Eli Carter was next with 11, and Jon Horford joined both in double figures at 10; the trio of transfers accounting for more than half of Florida's points was perfect for the best night of a season when those transfers have been (unfairly) expected to replicate the performance of the best senior class in school history.
The through-it-all senior in this class, Kurtz, is another Donovan dandy: He was a manager, as anyone who has watched a Florida game over the last two seasons knows, before he was a walk-on, and is now, more or less, a starter, as he was on this night. He made his only shot, and had three rebounds, three assists, and a steal; he was also integral to the offensive efficacy that has been so elusive for the Gators this year. He is underappreciated and underrated even as a player many have come to appreciate and rate, and he has bounced back beautifully from a mistake that could have wrecked a lesser player's psyche in a lesser coach's program.
The talented youngsters — Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson and Chris Walker this year — were fine on this night, too, flashing what they could be — and should be, if they stay and develop under Donovan, as nearly every player who Donovan teaches does. Chiozza was, as always, a dervish, and played fine defense despite three fouls in the first half. Hill had eight of Florida's 21 assists (on 24 makes!), and seven points on three floaters. Robinson showed his scoring chops, with seven points and old-fashioned and new-fangled three-point plays. Walker threw down two alley-oops on back-to-back possessions, and hustled hard while he still could.
All of it came together, as all of it does when Donovan's Florida Gators are at their best. They were at their best tonight, good enough — even without Michael Frazier II, the team's leading scorer, arguable best player, and only returning starter from last year's best team by record in school history — to have beaten or challenged every team on their schedule at this level of play.
Though these Gators haven't always been this good, and have challenged more teams than they've beaten in a season with more lessons learned than victories earned, they have fought like hell on almost every evening for a coach that doesn't accept less than that best effort.
And in the context of this season, this was just another win, really, just another proof of concept for a coach who is now the only man other than Bobby Knight to win 500 Division I college basketball games before his 50th birthday.
And the fact that many wins like this one are among the hundreds of wins that get tallied to the good for Billy Donovan is letter-perfect for his legacy.
He'd say his best teams make greatness routine.
But he makes those teams.