Even their best shooter extending a run of red-hot form couldn’t help the Florida Gators put down the pesky Georgia Bulldogs for good until the final moments of Wednesday night’s clash between the teams.
But when the game was on the line, Florida played the defense it needed to play to get a 72-63 win it needed to have.
Myreon Jones sank seven threes — a collegiate best for the Penn State transfer — and scored a Florida-best 23 points off the bench to lead all scorers in the game. But even his sensational performance at the offensive end wasn’t enough for Florida to put away the Dawgs, who, well, doggedly prevented Florida from taking a lead that reached 16 points in the first half and making the game a blowout.
Georgia closed the first half on a 13-5 stretch that included a 7-0 run and would trail 38-30 at halftime, then fought back from an immediate 5-0 run out of half by Florida and spent much of the second period taking bites out of 13-point leads.
The string of rips at it would not come until the final six minutes, however, as Georgia rallied from a 64-51 deficit — produced by Jones’s seventh three — with the game’s next 10 points, including a 7-0 run after a Florida timeout that seemed like an attempt to calm the nerves of a suddenly sloppy Gators offense that missed three threes and had two turnovers during the Bulldogs’ push.
But after another timeout with just under three minutes to play, Florida stabilized itself, with Colin Castleton hitting a midrange jumper to get the lead back to six and good defense for the next 90 seconds allowing Tyree Appleby to hit a game-sealing three with just under a minute left on the clock.
Free throws — which Florida did not gain significant advantage on for the first time in several games, shooting seven fewer than Georgia did and making just eight of 13 attempts — would pad out the final margin, with Jones throwing in his second block of the night on a desperation three by the Bulldogs for good measure.
And while Jones — who assisted on Castleton’s critical jumper and a three by Appleby to go up 14 in the second half, and also had a rebound and a steal on what was clearly his best night in a Florida uniform — was the Gators’ leader in this game, he had help. Castleton had 13 points, nine rebounds, and four blocks despite appearing to reaggravate the left shoulder injury that left him on the bench for six games, Appleby had 11 points and three assists, and Phlandrous Fleming — derided on social media for cheering on his hometown Dawgs as they won a national championship in football last month — chipped in eight points and four steals.
A game that threatened to be a blowout from the moment Niels Lane slashed through the paint for a thunderous dunk to put Florida up 4-0 never reached that status, though, and that’s something that will surely worry many who have taken pessimistic lines on these Gators and this program. (Never mind that Georgia, despite being 6-18, has extracted two of those wins from games against Memphis and Alabama teams with rosters superior to Florida’s, and had just given top-ranked Auburn a scare.)
The more optimistic spin? Florida needed to win this game because it could not afford to lose it and add the flab of a so-called Quadrant IV loss to its NCAA Tournament resume — and it did, leading for all but seven seconds.
These Gators may not win like fans would like them to, and may continue struggling to secure a signature triumph in SEC play if they bring only intermittent brilliance to bear in looming matchups against Kentucky and Auburn. When backed into corners because of their own errors, however, they tend to snarl their way back out of those situations.
It may not be easy. It may not be pretty. For this team, for now?