Road trips to Stegeman Coliseum were treacherous for the Florida men’s basketball team the last few seasons.
Georgia protected its home court three of the previous four years by knocking off the Gators. The Bulldogs’ only loss went to overtime.
This Florida team hadn’t come close to losing to anybody in the Southeastern Conference so far.
Georgia provided a scare for 20 minutes on Wednesday night before the No. 8 Gators quickly asserted themselves and rolled to a 64-47 victory before a crowd of 6,793, including a vocal contingent of Gator fans.
Florida outscored Georgia 21-4 in the first 10:01 of the second half to take control of a game the Gators never led in the first half.
“When a team makes a run, we’ve got to be mature enough to be able to stabilize our defense to calm it,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “We talked about that at the half, that they’re going to make a run in here somewhere and our defense has to be good enough to calm the run. It wasn’t.”
A Georgia team that shot 50 percent in the first half and led 27-24 at halftime went 1 of 9 from the field to start the second half while the Gators found their groove.
Florida, second in the SEC in 3-point percentage, was 1 of 9 in the first half from behind the arc, but hit a pair to start the second half to grab the lead and made 7 of 11 in the second half.
Georgia (7-11, 1-4 SEC) turned the ball over on its first three possessions after halftime—including two from freshman point guard Charles Mann—and Florida reeled off the first eight points of the second half—and 13 of the first 15–to take a 37-29 lead.
“We had a couple of freshmen moments there to start the half,” Fox said.
Guard Scottie Wilbekin (17 points to match career-high) hit a 3-pointer after Mann dribbled into the lane and threw the ball away.
After Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (team-high 16 points) lost the ball out of bounds, Mike Rosario’s 3-pointer gave Florida its first lead of the game at 30-27 with 18:08 to play.
The Gators kept coming and the Bulldogs had one field goal in almost 11 and a half minutes to start the second half.
“To start the half, we gave up two open 3s and that just changed the whole momentum,” Caldwell-Pope said. “In the second half, our defense failed us again. …We’ve got to learn how to finish games.”
Guard Kenny Boyton said Florida coach Billy Donovan “wanted us to come out in the second half and no matter what we had going offensively, just get it back together on defense. We tried to push up on them defensively in the second half to take away their three point shots and force them to drive.”
The Bulldogs made 6 of 11 3-point tries in the first half, including a 26-foot bomb from Caldwell-Pope with less than a second to go in the half. The Bulldogs didn’t attempt a 3-pointer in the second half until Caldwell-Pope hit one with 2:18 to go. Forward Brandon Morris (eight points) said there was a lot of contact down low but that Georgia didn’t get the calls he expected as the home team.
“We had a tough time finding baskets,” Fox said. “They made sure they guarded Kentavious. We had a tough time finishing plays or getting to the line and getting some free throw attempts there.”
Florida got a pair of 3 pointers from Boynton and another from forward Erik Murphy as it opened a 48-32 lead with 8:58 to play. Murphy scored all 13 of his points in the second half when he made three 3-pointers.
Florida (15-2, 5-0 SEC) won its first four SEC games by an average of 26.8 points per game. The Gators beat Missouri, ranked No. 22 now, by 31 over the weekend and drilled Georgia by 33 two weeks ago.
“I felt like that we could win the game,” Fox said. “They still ended up with 64, but I thought we really could match up and guard them. Didn’t do it in the second half.”
Nothing has come easy for the Gators in Athens in recent years and that was the case again in the first half.
Florida reached the Elite Eight last season, but Georgia still knocked off an 11th-ranked Gators team in Athens 76-62 last year.
The Bulldogs again conjured up upset possibilities early by running out to 6-0 and 11-2 leads early.
“We wanted to come out and throw the first punch and we did,” Caldwell-Pope said.
Said Donovan: “We knew it was going to be a grind-it-out, physical game. They were not going to get in a running game with us. They were going to run some clock. They forced us to dig a little deeper.”
Georgia is 0-5 now against ranked opponents, but no other SEC team has played more than three.
The Bulldogs next travel to Texas A&M (12-6, 2-3 SEC) for a 6 p.m. game on Saturday.
“I definitely see we grew as a team,” Morris said. “Florida’s a good team. …They know how to play under pressure. We just need to keep maturing.”