The set-up couldn’t have been less ideal. The scene couldn’t have been more daunting.
Visiting Florida had watched a six-point lead with less than a minute-and-a-half remaining in regulation dissolve and worse, Georgia held a three-point lead with less than seven seconds left in overtime.
Trusting his defense, Bulldogs’ coach Mark Fox took a risk and did not call for a foul. And Erving Walker, who had missed two potential game-winning free throws late in regulation, dribbled two-thirds of the court before calmly popping a relatively unguarded three-pointer from 25 feet to tie the game for the visiting Gators.
From there, despite all of the unbridled enthusiasm the rarely-seated crowd of 10,523 at Stegeman Coliseum could muster, the home team was done. The recharged Gators, playing their third game in six days, outscored Georgia, 19-6, in double overtime to take a huge 104-91 victory on Tuesday night.
“It was a great game, played at a really high level ,” Gator coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought going into the first overtime, our team was teetering a bit. But what happened to us going into the first overtime happened to them going into the second.”
The win was one the No. 23/24 Gators (16-4, 5-1 in the Southeastern Conference) should look back on with pride for numerous reasons.
The first was how they did it.
SEC East-leading Florida found itself down by as many as eight points in the first 20 minutes, and then ahead 70-64 with 1:28 remaining in the second half. However, the now-two-games-back Bulldogs (14-5, 3-3) responded with a spirited 7-1 run – capped by a buzzer-beating putback by All-American power forward candidate Trey Thompkins, who recorded his fourth consecutive double-double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 13 rebounds to go along with three blocked shots. Thompkins, who UF center Vernon Macklin said reminds him of Rasheed Wallace, and athletic swingman Travis Leslie (21 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, one block) were, as expected, outstanding.
“Those guys are extremely talented players who made a lot of plays for their team,” Donovan said. “They are as good as any duo in our conference.”
Bouyed by Thompkins’ surprisingly wide-open look, Georgia never trailed by more than a point in overtime and took an 85-82 lead on free throws by Jeremy Price (16 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, one block) with 6.7 seconds left in the first extra session.
That’s when Walker – a 76.4-percent foul shooter no doubt frustrated with himself for missing 2-of-3 free throws in the final 35 seconds of regulation – made the biggest bucket of UF’s season.
“I’m surprised he made the shot,” Leslie said.
The second was who led the charge.
As in, just about everyone.
Macklin scored a career-high 23 points to go along with a team-best nine rebounds (six offensive). He made 10-of-15 shots and was Georgia’s most difficult matchup.
Kenny Boynton was steady throughout, finishing with 24 points, two assists, two steals and two rebounds. The sophomore was clutch from the foul line, going 12-for-12, to help lead the Gators to a 26-for-36 overall performance (72.2 percent).
Chandler Parsons bounced back from a very quiet first half (three points, one rebound) to end up with 18 points and 12 rebounds. His work on the glass helped Florida overcome a 24-14 rebounding deficit at the half to finish with 47 each.
And the 6-foot-10 senior swingman’s play sealed the contest in double overtime.
After layups from Walker and Macklin put Florida up 89-85, Parsons sank a three-pointer and then followed that up with a steal, two layups and a free throw.
Walker tied Boynton for game-high scoring honors with 24 points. That went along with four rebounds and a game-best five assists. In addition to combining for 48 points, the Gators’ starting backcourt totaled three turnovers.
The bench offered its share of contributors, as sophomore Erik Murphy (seven points, three rebounds in only four minutes) and freshman Patric Young (two points, six rebounds, three steals, two energetic blocks in a career-high 30 minutes) came through when called upon.
“I was proud of the team effort we had,” Donovan said. “We needed a lot of people to play big minutes for us, and we had a lot of guys step up.”
Yes, it’s starting to all come around for the Gators.
Winners of three straight and eight of nine, Florida now is living up to expectations that saw some prognosticators calling UF a darkhorse Final Four candidate.
Since last Thursday, the Gators have won a game through defense (45-40 at Auburn), through offense (the Georgia game) and through offense and defense (75-43 over visiting Arkansas).
They have won in a place Kentucky couldn’t (Georgia) and have beaten the only SEC team to defeat West-leading Alabama (Arkansas).
And after beating who Donovan said in the preseason was “the one team I think clearly may be better than everyone (in the SEC),” Florida now has a chance to make a major statement.
Saturday brings a game at dangerous Mississippi State (10-8, 2-2) followed by home contests against No. 22 Vanderbilt (14-4, 2-2) and 16th-ranked Kentucky (15-4, 3-2). The Wildcats are coming off a 67-58 victory at South Carolina, the only team to beat UF in league play this year.
“We’ve put ourselves in good position,” Donovan said. “We just have to continue playing the way we have been of late.”
*The Gators still have yet to have a player foul out this year, though Macklin came close against Georgia, being whistled four times.
*Leslie and Thompkins led all players with 47 minutes of playing time on Tuesday night.
*UF freshman forward Will Yeguete, usually part of the rotation, did not play against the Bulldogs.
Gator(Gr)ade: A- (the minus is because of losing the six-point lead in the final 1:28 of regulation)
Gator Players of the Game: Vernon Macklin scored a career-high 23 points (on 10-of-15 shooting) with nine rebounds. He also had an assist and a steal. Kenny Boynton scored 24 points (including 12-of-12 free throws) with two assists, two rebounds and two steals. Erving Walker also scored 24 points, dished out a game-best five assists, grabbed four rebounds and added a steal. Hey, you pick just one!
Opposing Players of the Game: Trey Thompkins scored 20 points, grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds (five offensive) and blocked a game-high three shots.
Play/sequence of the Game: Is there any doubt? Erving Walker’s three-pointer with one second left in overtime tied the score at 85 and helped propel UF to a big win.
Stat of the Game: The Gators forced 20 turnovers and had just 13 themselves.
Next Up: The Gators will visit Mississippi State (10-8, 2-2) on Saturday at 1 p.m.