Call This Redemption Saturday For Gators

It is a Southeastern Conference basketball game, which the way the Florida Gators approach things means just another day at the office. You’ve been hearing that we’re taking it one game at a time talk that is the party line for the Gators for weeks now. Well, the one game at a time has gotten us to the one game that the Gators really want to play and that’s the Tennessee Volunteers.

The Vols (15-7, 3-4 SEC) and Coach Bruce Pearl come to Gainesville today (3 p.m., Lincoln Financial Network) and if you think this is just another game for Coach Billy Donovan’s top ranked Gators (20-2, 7-0 SEC) then you better think again. This is just another game about like The Mona Lisa is just another piece of art work.

Just ask Joakim Noah.

He recites the one game at a time line by memory and he will tell you about how Tennessee is a tough team and it’s such an honor to be playing such a tough team and how the Gators will have to bring their best to beat such a fine team coached by such a great coach … yadda, yadda yadda … there is a gleam in his eye. He remembers all too well.

He remembers the loss up in Knoxville last year, the one that knocked the Gators from the unbeaten ranks. They were 17-0 when they not only lost the game, but Corey Brewer got hurt and couldn’t play at full speed for several games afterward. Tennessee outscored the Gators by 10 points in the second half in Knoxville.

Noah also remembers the game in Gainesville. That’s the one that he took an elbow in the mouth and lost a tooth in the final two minutes of the game. The Vols outscored the Gators by eight in the second half and Florida lost that one, too. The Gators won the national championship in 2005-2006 with a school record 33 wins. The Gators remember those 33 wins and that NCAA championship like it was only yesterday.

On their way to a championship, the Gators lost six games, all in the Southeastern Conference. They remember those six losses, and in particular, the two to Tennessee like it was 30 seconds ago.

“I lost a tooth against them [Tennessee],” said Noah Thursday afternoon. “It was definitely our toughest losses of the year. Both of them were just heartbreaking.”

What compounded the losses was the game after. Both times the Gators didn’t rebound from the disappointment in time to put together a winning effort the next game out. Florida lost to South Carolina on the road the next game after the loss in Knoxville and then the Gators lost at Alabama after the loss to the Vols in Gainesville.

“We let those two losses effect the following games and they were very emotional games,” Noah remembers. “Just losing to them the way we did was tough. I remember not being able to sleep the next night.”

That’s why this game has been circled on every Gator’s calendar since well before the season began. Sure, the Gators have been doing the politically correct thing and they’ve been spouting the one game at a time party line that they’re supposed to recite every time they’re asked about the future, but if you want to know the truth, they’ve been wishing February 3 would get here for weeks now.

This isn’t about hating the Vols nor is it because the Florida-Tennessee rivalry figures to get pretty intense now that Bruce Pearl has the UT basketball program on the right track. The Gators want this game badly because it’s a chance to do what they couldn’t do last year, which was close out Tennessee. The Vols have been able to crow about their two wins over the national champs for the last year and that’s a point of contention with this Florida team.

Losing to the Vols was bad enough, but the way the Gators lost has been like a burr under their saddles. Both in Knoxville and then again in Gainesville, the Gators couldn’t seal the deal in the final minutes of very winnable games.

Failure to close is a sign of immaturity and this time last year, Florida was a very immature team. This is a chance to show the Vols just how far they’ve come, just how much they’ve matured since last season.

The Gators showed their maturity against Vanderbilt Wednesday night. Down by as many as 12 points and 11 at the half, there was no panic. The Gators simply took care of business in the second half and went about dismantling the Commodores in the calm, mature manner of a veteran team.

That might not have happened last year when crunch time was an adventure until the young, immature Gators matured. Once they settled down, the Gators grew from good to great and it showed in the 11-game winning streak that carried them all the way to the NCAA championship.

Last year the Gators kind of sneaked up on everybody. They were so inexperienced that nobody foresaw a championship.

“I think last year we were just learning,” said Brewer. “Nobody even expected us to be good.”

The expectations are much, much different this year. Florida isn’t expected to be good this year. The Gators are expected to be great, and great teams are great closers. The Gators became great closers last year but before they learned how to win the tough ones, they had to learn some very painful lessons, two at the hands of the Tennessee Vols. Since those back to back losses (Tennessee, Alabama) in 2006, Florida is 31-2 and the Gators have not lost a game when all five starters are healthy.

So call this a redemption Saturday for the Gators, a chance for the Gators to prove that the Vols weren’t the better team last year. Florida has had to live with Tennessee jawing that it beat the national champs twice for an entire year. Now the Gators can send a that was then and this is now message to the Vols. Nothing can change what happened last year, but the Gators can indeed show the Vols just how far that inexperienced team of last year has come in a year. Florida is all grown up and ranked number one for a reason. Proving that to the Vols Saturday is what they’ve been thinking about for weeks, so don’t even think for a second that this is just another game for Florida.

It’s much, much more than that.

GAME NOTES: With a win, the Gators can set the school record for most consecutive SEC wins to start the conference season … The Gators have won 13 games in a row, the fifth longest winning streak in school history … The Vols are expected to start three freshmen — forward Wayne Chism and guards Josh Tabb and Ramar Smith. A fourth freshman, Duke Crews, will play extensively … Noah and Al Horford are averaging a combined 25 points, 17.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots per game … Lee Humphrey is averaging 15.3 points per game in SEC games. He is hitting 70 percent (28-40) from the three-point stripe in SEC contests … Florida has held the last two opponents to a combined 4-31 from the three-point line.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.