It was sloppy, it was physical, and it was heart stopping. But it was (pardon the reference) a bulldog-scrappy, 66-58 Florida victory over the Tennessee Volunteers. After a first half of yelling and groaning alone in my Atlanta apartment on a cold and rainy (or “wintery mix”) night, I relaxed midway through the second half when something clicked. I think any Florida fan would say, “The Gators sure have been a second-half team all year,” and that is a true statement. Yet, I would go one step further and say that Florida was an entirely different team during the second half in Knoxville.
I would venture so far as to say that this was the team’s most impressive win all season. Facing a hostile crowd, less than scrupulous officiating, and a Tennessee team firing better than 62% in the first half, Florida had its hands full during this game.
Tennessee played fast-paced and up-tempo basketball that kicked Florida off-balance most of the first half. But come the second half, the Vols made less than 30% of their shots. That essentially sealed their fate against an inspired, and incredibly physical, Florida defense. By the final buzzer, Florida had its 16th victory in a row.
Undeterred by their recent troubles in Knoxville (prior to Thursday’s victory Florida had lost nine of the last eleven games in Rocky Top), Florida was 77% from the free-throw line and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds. Patric Young also had what I think should be a “SportsCenter Top Ten” moment by sacrificing his body on the hardwood to keep the ball alive and ice the game.
This team excites me more than I’ve been excited for Florida basketball in a long time, but they frustrate the hell out of me too. They can’t decide who they are, but they manage to win. They make you yell at the TV and then silence yourself one play later (like when Casey Prather coughed up the ball at one end, Wilbekin creates defensive havoc on the other end, and then Michael Frazier drops a three).
I can critique them for free throw shooting, then they drop 70%+ plus of their shots. They play lights out defense, but then decide to test out their offensive skills for a change. No, I can’t put a finger on this team. And, I’m slowly accepting and becoming okay with that fact.
What is clear: these players have invested themselves in what Florida Coach Billy Donovan is trying to create. The five guys who start, the players off the bench, and even newcomer Chris Walker, are all willing to do whatever it takes on both ends of the court to win. Most importantly, they do it without any regard to individual performances, but rather a laser-like focus on team success.
This is Billy Ball. Three straight trips to Elite Eight, sixteen consecutive twenty win seasons, five regular season SEC titles, 3 SEC Basketball tournament titles, a winning record against arch-rival Florida State, and a respected national brand tell the tale. Even when they can’t finger an identity, the guys figure out how to win. Beyond that, the majority of players stay three or four years (see Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, et al) and come back to finish their education. No, this program is not a “one and done” factory like Kentucky, North Carolina, or Kansas. They are committed to the long haul, and they are, pardon the pun, in it to win it.
If they do happen to fall short again, we need to remember that this group of seniors has won over 100 games, broken school records, and absolutely earned our respect through their loyalty. So yell at the TV all you want (I’ll be right there with you), but be mindful of everything these Gators have accomplished. And remember:
“In all kinds of weather, we’ll all stick togetherrrrrrrrr…..forrrrr F-L-O-R-I-D-A!”