As the final seconds ticked off of Florida’s 71-62 victory against visiting Georgia on Thursday night, Erving Walker pounded the ball into the court with just a little extra oomph. Kenny Boynton did a half-skip and Patric Young and Chandler Parsons each pumped their right fists.
A smile creeped over coach Billy Donovan’s face while redshirts Cody Larson and Mike Rosario bounced up and down like little kids awaiting birthday presents.
This Gator basketball team was in a mood to celebrate, and why not? When every other SEC East contender tried and failed to make needed statements this week, UF did not.
Yes, the Gators (22-5, 11-2 in the SEC) have clinched at least a tie of the East (and it’s No. 1 seed in the conference tournament) and if they win at Kentucky on Saturday and then at home against Alabama on Tuesday, they claim the regular season league title outright, regardless of what happens four days later at Vanderbilt.
“This was one of our goals, and it feels good to get it done,” senior power forward Alex Tyus said. “We have worked really hard all season, but we still have work to do.”
Included in that work will be the plain truth that if Florida can come back 43 hours after dispatching the Bulldogs and snap UK’s 32-game Rupp Arena winning streak, the contest with the Crimson Tide will determine the outright SEC champion, regardless of what happens in Nashville four days later.
But first, two nights after watching Vanderbilt fall to Tennessee and one after the Wildcats lost in overtime at Arkansas, the Gators needed to get by Georgia (18-9, 7-6).
And after a 20-minute sleepwalk, UF found itself (according to Donovan) “lucky” to be down just 33-26 at the intermission.
There, Georgia made 15-of-25 shots (60-percent), while Florida sank just 10-of-27 (37-percent). The Bulldogs held a 17-11 rebounding edge, an 11-3 advantage in assists and had outscored the Gators, 20-14, in the paint.
But, as they have so many times this season, the Gators took over in the second half.
Parsons and Boynton were the catalysts.
Playing at what he approximated was 80- to 85-percent speed in his first game since suffering a deep left thigh bruise 10 days earlier against Tennessee, Parsons played a quiet first half, coming off the bench 7:11 into the contest to score four points and grab just two rebounds.
But in the final half, he looked like the assertive 6-foot-10 senior who had been drawing his share of conference player of the year talk prior to getting injured.
Wearing a wrap and “turtle shell” pad just above his knee, Parsons scored the first four points of the half and then drilled a three-pointer with 17:02 left to tie the score at 35. A little more than four minutes later, Walker hit a layup to give the Gators a 44-42 lead.
They would never trail again, due in great part to Boynton.
In a memorable offensive spurt, the sophomore shooting guard followed up a three-point play with three consecutive three-pointers in a three-and-a-half minute stretch just past the midpoint of the second half.
“It was nice to be able to help out like that,” Boynton said. “The basket didn’t look any bigger or anything. My stroke just felt good. I felt good.”
As did the often-raucous crowd of 12,013, which helped sustain UF’s energy while the talented, but depth-deprived Bulldogs faded.
“(Florida) just started playing harder (in the second half),” said Georgia forward Trey Thompkins, who scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds. “It seemed that they were challenged, and they felt that they had to come out and play harder at home and they did.”
The statistics bear out Thompkins’ thoughts.
The Gators made 15-of-28 shots in the second half and outrebounded the Bulldogs, 19-15. But perhaps the numbers that meant the most had to do with turnovers.
Often prone to moments of sloppiness early in the year, UF turned the ball over only five times against Georgia and outscored the Bulldogs 23-4 in points off turnovers.
Four Gators – Boynton (18 points), Parsons (16), Walker (16) and Tyus (12) – scored in double figures, providing a balance Georgia just doesn’t have. The Bulldogs had just two players, Thompkins and swingman Travis Leslie (20 points), put up more than nine points.
“Those guys are good,” said Parsons, who said he was more sore than in pain. “Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins, they are great players. Any time you can come away with a win against those guys it does something for your confidence.”
And this one did something for their trophy case, as well.
*Football coach Will Muschamp, former Gator center Dwayne Schintzius, former tight end Cornelius Ingram and former receiver Louis Murphy were among those in attendance Thursday night. Ingram stopped by media player interviews to congratulate Chandler Parsons after the contest. Schintzius was wearing the “I’m Awesome” shirt made famous by WWE champion The Miz.
*Parsons estimated he has been getting at least five hours of treatment each day (including in his room at night). That includes work in a pool, with a stimulator, in heat and through massage. The Gators have been practicing each day between 3-5 p.m., and Donovan said one day at 11:30 a.m. he went to work out, only to walk by and see Parsons asleep on the training table, waiting for more treatment. “I’ve never seen anyone work harder (to come back from an injury),” Donovan said. Donovan later compared Parsons’ so-so first half and big second half to the Dec. 23, 2006 home game against Ohio State where Al Horford returned from an ankle injury to have a major impact in the final 20 minutes of that 86-60 win.
*After making 10-of-15 shots for a career-high 23 points in the first meeting between the two teams, Vernon Macklin was quiet on Thursday night, scoring five points on 1-of-2 shooting. He did grab a game-high eight rebounds.
Gator(Gr)ade: B (excellent second half offsets “C” first half)
Gator Players of the Game: After missing Sunday afternoon’s 68-61 victory at LSU, senior swingman Chandler Parsons scored 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting (Scottie Wilbekin at 2-for-3 was the only other Gator to shoot better than 50-percent from the field). He also grabbed seven rebounds, dished out three assists, blocked a shot and collected a steal in his 30 turnover-free minutes of action.
Opposing Player of the Game: Travis Leslie led all players with 21 points (on 8-of-14 shooting and 4-of-4 foul shooting). He also pulled down seven rebounds, dished out four assists and had a steal.
Play/sequence of the Game: Between the 9:09 mark and the 5:42 mark of the second half, Boynton scored 12 straight Gator points. Included in that run was three consecutive trips down the court with three-pointers.
Stat of the Game: In great part because of Parsons, UF outscored Georgia, 21-7, off the bench.
Next Up: The Gators will visit Kentucky (19-8, 7-6) on Saturday at 4 p.m.