ATHENS, Ga. -- When Florida had a chance to put Georgia away for good on Tuesday night, Gators guard Erving Walker missed two foul shots in the final 36 seconds of regulation.
When the Bulldogs missed a shot on the final play of regulation, the Gators didn’t block out, allowing UGA forward Trey Thompkins to score the tying basket just before the buzzer.
During the past few seasons, when Florida coach Billy Donovan was struggling to rebuild a program that won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and ’07, his teams would have probably folded in overtime.
Ever since Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah left for the NBA after their junior seasons in 2007, the Gators seemed to lack the intestinal fortitude to come back from gut-wrenching blows.
But for the third time in two weeks, these Gators showed they might actually have the confidence and courage to make a sustained run in March.
After blowing an eight-point lead in the final three minutes of regulation, Florida forced a second overtime on Walker’s desperation 3-pointer with one second left and then pulled away from Georgia for a 104-91 victory at Stegeman Coliseum.
“It shows we’re not going to give up,” Florida forward Chandler Parsons said. “We could have easily packed it up after Thompkins tipped in the shot.”
The Gators could have packed it in at the end of the first overtime period, too. The Bulldogs (14-5, 3-3 SEC) took an 85-82 lead on forward Jeremy Price’s two foul shots with 6.7 seconds to go. Instead of fouling, UGA allowed Walker to dribble up the floor and launch a 3-pointer from about 30 feet.
Walker drained it, forcing a second overtime and taking the wind out of Georgia’s sails.
“When I grabbed the ball, I thought I heard a coach say something [about fouling],” Walker said. “I wanted to take the shot before they fouled me. I shot it a little farther back, instead of moving in for a cleaner look. I didn’t know if it was good the moment it left, but it felt good. I knew it had a shot of going in.”
The Gators (16-4, 5-1 SEC) scored the first nine points of the second overtime and ran away with their eighth victory in nine games.
Six games into SEC play, Florida is alone in first place in the SEC East. The Gators were the preseason favorites to win the division and are finally starting to live up to their lofty billing.
“I think it’s us being humble,” said Parsons, who scored 18 points, including nine of the Gators’ 19 points in the second overtime. “I think it’s about us being hungry. I think it’s about us understanding what it takes to win. We all want to win.”
And it’s about the Gators being tougher than they were during the past few seasons.
Florida has already won road games at Florida State, Xavier and Tennessee, where the Gators won 81-75 in overtime on Jan. 11. And although the Gators struggled to put away lowly Auburn 45-40 on the road last week, they still produced an 8-0 run in the final two minutes to win the game.
Florida has suffered a couple of head-scratching losses -- it lost to a suddenly ordinary UCF team 57-54 in Orlando on Dec. 1 and, worse, 71-68 in overtime to Jacksonville at home on Dec. 20 -- but the Gators finally seem to be learning to handle success.
“I think they’re starting to learn that you’ve got to line up and play,” Donovan said. “They’re getting better. I like coaching these guys. They’re great kids. As a coach, you always want more from your team, but I think we’re getting better in that area.”