(image: Athens Banner-Herald)
Cinderella may not be dressed and ready to go yet, but she sure shined off those shoes for at least one evening's fun. The Georgia Bulldogs men's basketball team managed to avoid a winless conference season by knocking off the Florida Gators 88-86 in front of a fairly energetic home crowd.
For a team that had just weathered a 31-point beat down at the hands of the Tennessee Volunteers, the Dawgs found a way to defeat the Gators in the least plausible way: by scoring.
The previous five seasons or so of UGA basketball have been defined by the defensive mindset of ousted coach Dennis Felton, but Terrance Woodbury single-handedly turned that reputation upside down in the half.
Woodbury, almost equally the target of boos as cheers during his time at Georgia, did not miss a single shot in the first half, on his way to pouring in 20 points, including knocking down five three-pointers.
He simply could not miss, and brought the Dawgs storming out of the gates to a 21-8 lead in the first 10 minutes. And the season-long hibernation of the Bulldog basketball faithful—with the notable inclusion of the student section—finally ended, if only for one game.
The Bulldogs again found themselves with a large lead in the first half and managed to maintain a seven-point edge until halftime. In the second half, the Gators shot and defended themselves back into the game, even taking a two-point lead with less than 10 minutes to go. But the home team's patience prevailed as the Gators committed key fouls down the stretch and the Bulldogs clamped down on defense on crucial possessions.
Center Albert Jackson, possibly the recipient of the least cheers in a collegiate basketball career, played like the 6'11" hulk of man that he actually is.
Freshman point guard Dustin Ware held onto the ball like his life depended on it, knocking down three-point shots when Woodbury was covered.
And Freshman All-SEC candidate Howard "Trey" Thompkins grabbed rebounds and altered shots like the top-ranked player we recruited.
But simple game recaps cannot do justice to what this victory means for both the team and the UGA community at large.
I walked into Stegeman Coliseum with my parents and younger brother after having to convince myself the game would not be a waste of everyone's afternoon. We arrived 30 minutes before tip-off to an arena almost equally divided between home team and visiting team fans.
And in the general admission section where we sat, we were probably outnumbered 2-to-1 by Gator fans, both young and old. The student section was nearly abandoned save for the free red and black shakers waiting on every chair. Needless to say, the emotions surrounding the game were nearly as low as the expectations.
But it is funny how sports—collegiate sports specifically—can change people's emotions so quickly. By halftime, the excitement and hope were almost palpable in the arena air.
The Dawg fans had a reason to pay attention; they were watching a basketball team leave all of itself out on the court. Sure, there will not be too many games where an entire team shoots nearly 60 percent from the floor. And it will be a very long time until the Bulldogs hit 14 three-pointers in a single game. And you can never count on a player reaching a career high in scoring.
Everything just came together yesterday evening, and it was beautiful.
When the final, desperate Gator shot missed the mark, Woodbury fittingly grabbed the clinching rebound. The proceeding minutes encompassed the meaning surrounding the game. The two teams came together to dutifully shake hands. The Bulldogs then rushed to the student section to dance and celebrate. The students screamed and hugged each other.
The Bulldog Nation had a glimmer of hope for the future of the program and its assembled talent. But the best part may well have been the faces of the Gator fans quietly filing down the steps and out the doors.
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