As the clock wound down and the mostly blue clad Gator crowd was drunk with the sheer happiness that comes from beating a rival for the first time in 1,051 days, a strange, yet overwhelmingly satisfying chant arose from the Rowdy Reptiles- and soon, the entire O’Dome.
“JUST LIKE FOOT-BALL! (chomp, chomp, chomp-chomp-chomp) JUST LIKE FOOT-BALL!”
Yes, the Gators do indeed have some bragging rights on the football field- nine straight wins over Tennessee- in a year in which they went 4-8. The more relevant streak, though, was the three game winning streak the Vols had on the hardwood in this rivalry that the 67-41 Gators victory not only broke, but Gronk-spiked to the floor, swept up the pieces and then jumped up and down on them like Jim Harbaugh having a temper tantrum until they were little more than dust. Then the Gators burned the remains, leaving zero doubt as to who the better team is, and more importantly, who the class of the SEC is.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a tough game at first. Florida appeared confused early on offensively, as the Vols locked down pretty well on the perimeter. Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill weren’t able to drive the lane like they usually were, and Tennessee was mauling the Gators in the rebounding department. It was tied at 15 with 9 minutes to go in the first half.
Then the fun began.
The best part of the remaining 29 minutes of the game? The Gators got manhandled on the boards for most of the 40 minutes of game time, and yet they were so completely and utterly dominant in every other phase that they wound up with one of the most lopsided victories they’ve earned all season.
Let’s start defensively. Florida played some unbelievable lockdown defense for a full 40 minutes; the 41 points Tennessee managed to score was their lowest total since 2012 (against Virginia, a team known for its famously effective pack-line defense). The Gators did an excellent job rotating around for much of the game, other than a couple of Jeronne Maymon open layups when somebody was caught out of position. But really, that’s bound to happen every now and then with the amount of energy Florida used to smother the Vols’ offense like a film of sweat.
Stat wise… get ready to laugh. Let’s just say the stats were in congruence with the scoreboard (and, I’ll gleefully remind you, the 41 points Tennessee could muster). Tennessee’s best offensive player on the day, Jarnell Stokes, who started out hot with 8 points in the first 10:47, could only manage 8 more throughout the game’s remaining 29:13. Jordan McRae, who was guarded by Scottie Wilbekin (yeah, I’d say that counts as foreshadowing), scored 5 points, and it was a miracle that he got that many. Josh Richardson can attest to that. He came into the Florida game averaging a healthy 8.9 points a game- and was held scoreless in just north of 23 minutes of game time.
But perhaps the Gators’ crazy glue defense can best be epitomized by this stat. Tennessee’s three guards- Richardson, McRae and Antonio Barton- combined to shoot an absolutely dreadful 2-29 from the field. That’s a percentage that isn’t even good for bowling, let alone from your guards in a basketball game.
Then there was the Gators’ 10-13 shooting from the free throw line. They’re free points, and as I’ve said all year, Florida needs to be at or over 70% if they want to consistently win tough games. Am I going to whine for half the recap if they shoot 69%? No. But they need to be in that general area every time if they want to grind out tough wins, and 10-13 is well over that mark (around 77%).
Onto the Gators’ shooting from the field. Florida wasn’t great, but they were good, which is good enough (FORTY ONE POINTS ALLOWED) and they were clutch, hitting some threes at the right moments to really blow the game open in the third quarter (meaning, the first 10 minutes of the second half). Scottie Wilbekin scored a quiet 13 (4-8 from the field), Casey Prather chipped in 12 more (on 5-7 from the field) and Michael Frazier led all scorers with 17 points, including his usual three three-pointers, the second of which kick-started the Gators’ 19-3 run to put the game away.
But as loud as the O’Dome got after each Frazier three, none of Frazier’s buckets elicited quite the roar that his best pass of the year did.
Go on, take a minute to step away from your computer and scream with delight. Come on, there’s no shame in admitting you need to start screaming like a little girl after watching that and letting your adrenaline just take over. God knows I need to- I damn near broke my hand Gator chomping with such force when I saw it live and I need a less destructive outlet to vent my ecstasy.
OK, now that we’ve gotten THAT out of the way, time to talk big picture. Florida sits alone atop the SEC, and with only Mississippi and Kentucky challenging. But those two teams draw each other twice this year, and both games are played before Florida gets their shot at Mississippi and in between Florida’s two annual battles with Kentucky, so at the very least, one team will knock the other out of contention before the Gators have to deal with them.
In essence, what I saying is that Florida will have a chance to knock both teams out of contention when they play them assuming they keep winning the games they’re supposed to until then. For example: at Mississippi State, Texas A&M at home, Missouri at home, and Alabama at home. Tennessee on the road might not be so easy, partly because they’re pissed at Florida for what the Gators just did to them, but it’s certainly a doable task.
Then comes the one week gauntlet from February 15th to the 22nd: at Kentucky, home for Auburn (cupcake) and then at Mississippi (I refuse to call them Ole Miss). If Florida can take one out of those two road games, the SEC is essentially theirs, unless Mississippi sweeps Kentucky and that’s the one they lose, because Florida gets Kentucky twice and would have a chance to rectify a road loss to Kentucky when the Wildcats come to the O’Dome a day after my 20th birthday (Jesus Christ, I’m getting old).
But no matter. If the Gators want to win the SEC for the second straight year, they’re going to get there by winning one game at a time. And beating Tennessee was one hell of a game, and their first real test in the SEC at home. Since the Gators don’t play again until Thursday night against MSU, the fans (NOT the players) can revel in this victory for almost an entire week… and boy, will we. Perhaps the most fun part about beating the Vols is the ability to change the words to the god awful song their band plays non stop throughout every single game. If you haven’t heard of it (and the only way that’s possible is if you live under a rock- there’s your hint), it’s called Rocky Top. So here I go.
Oh, Rocky Top, you’ll always be,
Gatorbait to me,
67 to 41,