He dashed over to shake hands with friends and family in the stands after the final seconds ticked off the clock and even carried the basketball back to the locker room with him. This was a game he wanted to cherish for as long as possible.
Riding an 11-game losing streak – just two shy of the program’s all-time worst stretch – and still winless in the SEC, Georgia put together its best all-around performance of the season with Woodbury leading the way Saturday. The senior forward racked up a career-high 32 points and the Bulldogs held off a late Florida run to come away with an 88-86 win, their first over the Gators since 2003.
“You win games, you lose games, and obviously we got caught in a bad streak,” Woodbury said. “But I wasn’t stressing about it. We just had to go out there and play better than we had. We played great (Saturday).”
Mired in one of the worst slumps in SEC history, Georgia would have been hard pressed to find anyone who thought it could knock off the East Division-leading Gators – a fact Bulldogs football coach Mark Richt reminded the players of during a speech Friday. Richt recounted his 2006 team’s struggles and their strong finish to the season, telling the Georgia basketball players that the only way to earn a win was to believe in each other.
The words of encouragement worked, freshman point guard Dustin Ware said, and from the outset Georgia looked like the a new team.
“The game was won before the game even started,” Ware said. “We came out and I could tell in warm-ups we were just energetic and excited. I hadn’t seen that in months. I could tell before the game we were going to have a great game.”
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 21-8 lead after five minutes behind the hot-shooting Woodbury. The senior hit his first seven shots of the game – including five 3-pointers – and had 20 points by halftime.
Woodbury said he couldn’t remember another game in his career when he was quite that hot shooting the ball, but he said his hot hand wasn’t something he thought about while the game was going on.
“I was just like, they’re going in, cool. We’re winning, cool,” he said. “I wasn’t stressing the fact that I was hitting them.”
While Woodbury wasn’t stressing, the Gators might have been.
The Bulldogs shot 69 percent from the field in the first half, including 10-of-16 from beyond the arc. They took a seven-point edge into the half, racking up six more points in the first 20 minutes against Florida than they scored in the entire game in a 31-point loss to Tennessee just three days earlier and just three fewer points than they had mustered in their first game against the Gators, an 83-57 defeat that marked the final game for former coach Dennis Felton.
“(Florida is) a tremendous team, but I think we had them a little rattled,” senior Corey Butler said. “Maybe they thought it was going to be just like it was in Gainesville, but I think we had them rattled.”
While Georgia hardly looked the part of the conference cellar dwellers, it couldn’t keep Florida from making a run.
The Gators fought back and tied the game at 73 with two Erving Walker free throws midway through the second half.
In previous games, this would have marked the end of the run for the Bulldogs, but instead it was Florida that faded under pressure. The Gators hit just one field goal in the game’s final 5:22 behind a stout defensive performance by the Bulldogs.
“The timeouts we had with six minutes and with three minutes to play, you could tell they were very focused on, we’ve played this whole game strong, close it out,” interim head coach Pete Herrmann said. “We’re going to close it out. They were into it. … I really feel that they trust each other more. They trust that they’re going to make a good play.”
Florida trailed by two with four seconds left to play, but Walker missed a jumper and Walter Hodge, who led the Gators with 22 points and was 6-of-8 from 3, missed the follow to seal the win for Georgia.
“(Hodge) had been hot all night, and we hoped he was going to cool down on the last one,” Ware said. “We got a hand in his face, and luckily the thing didn’t go in.”
The win prevented Georgia from achieving the ignominious distinction of becoming only the second Bulldogs team in more than a half-century to lose 12 straight games, and it earned seniors Butler and Woodbury their first victory over the school’s biggest rival.
The moment couldn’t have been sweeter for a group of players who had experienced little to celebrate in the past two months.
“I couldn’t even explain how big a weight this is off my shoulders,” Butler said. “It’s been four years I’ve been here, and we haven’t beat Florida. We owned them (Saturday). It’s as simple as that. We owned them.”