Florida head coach Todd Golden has said all year that his team is still figuring out how to play its best basketball, and on Wednesday night everything clicked during a 13-point upset victory over No. 2 Tennessee.
The Gators showed flashes of brilliance against lesser competitors earlier in the season, but the team hasn't fared as well against Quadrant 1 and 2 opponents. Coming into the Tennessee game, Florida had just two wins against Q1 and Q2 opponents in 11 chances. Close losses to Auburn, Florida Atlantic and Texas A&M (twice) are resume killers, but now the team has finally made good on Golden's word.
"Obviously, this team's had a lot of ups and downs in terms of the results in games," Golden said during his post-game press conference. "I felt pretty strongly, and I've talked to you guys about the fact that I feel like we're better than our record indicated, even through some of those stretches. I'm just incredibly proud of our guys for putting an effort like that together for 40 minutes."
It's not lost on the first-year head coach how big of a win this is for his squad. After winning five out of six games in January, Florida's loss to No. 5 Kansas State deflated the fan base. The win over Tennessee re-energized the fans and erased any memory of Keyontae Johnson hanging on the rim.
The Volunteers had a strong argument for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but now Florida has put Alabama in the driver's seat of the Southeastern Conference.
"They're at the top of the game right now being No. 2," he said. "Obviously, that part in the second half where they made a big run on us, I think they took a six-point lead. Just the grit that our guys showed and being able to bounce back from that was fantastic. Just a lot of great all-around efforts to beat a team like that by 13 points."
As Golden alluded to, the victory was not a blowout win by any means. Florida started out with a 17-4 run, but Tennessee came back like a top-five team in the country should against an unranked opponent. Never deterred, Golden asked his squad to play with an "F-it" mentality and they delivered. The Gators simply proved that its defense was good enough to allow a run like that and still recover in time to win by double digits.
"Stay the course," he said. "We had a tough little stretch there. Some things didn't go our way. That was a great moment for us because, just in the past, we haven't been able to finish at a level like that, and we did a wonderful job after (Santiago) Vescovi made those three free throws to put them up six of just getting that lead back and never relinquishing it down the stretch."
Golden said he didn't feel comfortable until there were about 30 seconds left in the game. After failing to finish off the win so many times before, it almost didn't feel real that the team was finally doing it against the No. 2 team in the country.
"I think it's affirmation that we can beat anybody when we play to our capabilities," he said. "Obviously, we played very well tonight. It would be a high standard to hold us to on a nightly basis, but now we've shown the capacity to do it. And I think that belief comes from that understanding that it's not a potential anymore. tonight, we've proven the capacity to beat a top team in the country."
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Story originally appeared on Gators Wire