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SMITH: Bulldogs hope to build on breakthrough hoops win

Defining moments in sports are never forecast. You identify them by looking back, but there was something special about the last two minutes of Georgia's basketball game with Florida this past weekend which should bode well for the future.

The Bulldogs, whose shooting ability had often ranged from anemic to deplorable, connected often enough to maintain a lead of 10 or more points throughout most of the second half, but in the last two minutes, which can be an eternity in basketball, there was opportunity to initiate crestfallen spirits at Stegeman Coliseum.

Florida's Kenny Boynton hit a 3-point shot with 1:53 minutes remaining, and the Bulldogs suddenly had a lead of only five points, 67-62. The cushion had evaporated. In this world of the 3-point field goal, you realize that a five-point lead can disappear before you can say, "Go Dawgs."

The tension was so thick you could have cut it with your fingernails if you hadn't bitten them to the nub by that time. Florida's fans anticipated a gloating comeback. The Gator alumni club, based in Atlanta, is the biggest such club outside the state of Florida and many of its eager members had driven over for the game -- fully expecting their nationally ranked No. 11 Gators to dominate the struggling Bulldogs. "Let's go Gators," they chanted with supercharged enthusiasm. Not difficult to understand their swagger. After all, unranked Georgia occupied the unenviable 11th place in the SEC standings. In Gainesville six weeks ago, the Gators sent the Bulldogs home smarting from a 70-48 defeat.

Even the most loyal of Georgia fans realized that this young team did not have the experience or the maturity to keep from folding from the pressure, but Mark Fox's team may have matured considerably in a very short period of time. This is a team which lost its foundation when Wesleyan grad Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie left after last season for a life in the NBA. This is a team which has lost games like it lost to Vanderbilt a week before the Gators came to town, by shooting a paltry 29 percent in the second half.

With the game on the line and Florida invoking the strategy of making the Bulldogs win it at the free throw line, Dustin Ware hit two free shots. Georgia 69-62, 1:17 left. Florida fouled again. Donte' Williams mades two free throws. Georgia 71-62, 1:04 left.

It was time to do something different, so there was a dunk by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Georgia led 73-62. Then Dustin Ware mades one of two free throws with 48 seconds left. A dunk, by Williams with 17 seconds remaining and the lead became 76-62, which is how it ended. If you were paying attention, Florida failed to score a point in the last 1:53 of play.

This should be a boost to the young Bulldogs, not only their spirits, but the confidence that they can win big games. The mental toughness from this victory should bring residuals for the future. Following the disappointing loss to Vandy, Fox still maintained positive feelings. "I like coaching this young team," he said.

Georgia has a coach who only needs a little more talent to succeed and to fill Stegeman Coliseum. Unfortunately, he works at an address where fans, including the student body, only become committed when victory becomes commonplace. While that is true everywhere, the difference in Athens has to do with the fact that historically, the basketball program has a history of making two steps forward and then three backward.

Now the leader, a tall and savvy Kansan, is a man whose work ethic is exceptional. Fox is a passionate coach whose chief goal is to move his program to where he can reload--not rebuild. The Florida victory could be a step in that direction.

Loran Smith is co-host of "The Tailgate Show" and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.