(UPDATED at 10:45 p.m.)
ATHENS –Travis Leslie was three feet away from the shooter, but the shooter was about 30 feet from the basket. The lead looked safe.
“I didn’t think he was gonna make it,” the Georgia guard said. “But he was lucky enough to make it. I thought we had the win.”
Jeremy Price was on the bench. The center had just made two free throws to give the Bulldogs an 85-82 lead over Florida with six seconds left and was taken out for defensive purposes. He watched Florida’s Erving Walker pull up for a shot 10 feet behind the three-point line at thought the same thing as most others in the building.
“I thought the game was over,” he said. “I thought he was too deep, running, fading left. Then I saw it go in. Heartbreaker.”
Georgia’s basketball program has made terrific strides in Mark Fox’s first two seasons. That makes losses like Tuesday night’s 104-91, double overtime defeat to Florida at Stegeman Coliseum even more difficult to take in some ways. Since the Bulldogs’ upset of Kentucky, they have lost three of five. That includes two stinging home defeats — a two-point loss to Tennessee and this one to Florida.
“At some point we’ll have to win a heartbreaker,” Fox said, uttering a word used often in the post-game. “We haven’t been in a lot of these.”
The atmosphere in Stegeman was as loud and electric as Fox could have hoped for. As the coach said later, “I’m proud of our team and I’m proud of our crowd.”
This is the Georgia-Florida game Bulldogs fans now attend without fear of humiliation. The football Dogs have dropped 18 of the last 21 to the Gators. The basketball Dogs entered Tuesday having lost 12 of 14 to their rivals, but won the previous two at Stegeman. Further, there is a universal belief that Fox has things going in the right direction in Athens.
What happened Tuesday did nothing to change that. Despite the loss, this looks like a 20-win team. This looks like an NCAA tournament team. If that happens, it will be the first time in nine seasons (2001-02) the Bulldogs are selected for the field by the committee. (The only tournament berth since then was the automatic entry that came via their improbable, tornado-aided, 2007-08 SEC tournament title.)
Georgia basketball has become a big deal. This was the fourth straight sellout awt Stegeman, a streak we haven’t seen since nine straight sellouts in the barn in 2002-03. Fortunately, this one will finish with better memories than that one — because Jim Harrick and NCAA investigators are off campus.
Trey Thompkins sent the game into overtime when he followed a Dustin Ware miss just before the buzzer to tie the game at 73-73. There were eight lead changes in the first overtime, but it looked like the Dogs would win it. With less than 10 seconds left and Georgia leading 83-82, Thompkins stole the ball from Florida’s Kenny Boykin and passed it to Price. Price hit two free throws with 6.7 seconds left to make it to make it 85-82.
But the Gators rushed the ball up court, Fox elected not to have his players foul and Walker pulled up to take a three-point shot from Bogart, Ga. It went in with one second left.
In the second overtime, the Dogs seemed to have lost their legs and their will. Florida scored the first nine points in overtime.
Fox said later that he thought his team “looked fatigued” in the second overtime. But Price said, “I feel like it was more mental than physical. That shot took away a lot from us.”
Now comes the hard part. Georgia (14-5, 3-3) has to try to bounce back and travel to Kentucky Saturday. Motivation won’t be an issue for the Wildcats, who lost in Stegeman two and a half weeks ago.
“There’s worse things in life that are going to happen to them,” Fox said of his players. “They have no choice but to get back up.”
But the sting from this one will linger for a while.
By Jeff Schultz