ATHENS, Ga. ----- If Georgia could beat second-ranked Florida in Gainesville, Fla., without two of its top players, then the least its fans could do was brave a cold, steady rain to welcome the team with an impromptu celebration at the Athens airport.
Saturday marked the second time in two weeks that the Bulldogs have been welcomed by members of the Georgia pep band and a crowd of fans following a big road win over a top 10 team. Last week's occasion was a rare victory at then-No. 8 Kentucky.
Saturday's 84-79 win at Florida was an even bigger surprise, and despite the bad weather the welcoming party was bigger than last week.
"This is even better than Kentucky,'' said Georgia forward Jarvis Hayes Saturday as he attempted to sign his autograph on a damp Georgia T-shirt handed to him by a young boy.
Florida is believed to be the highest-ranked team Georgia has ever beaten.
Georgia beat No. 3 St. John's en route to the 1983 Final Four.
Approximately 200 Georgia fans began cheering and the pep band began playing as soon as the team's charter jet slowed to a stop about 5 p.m. The cheering lasted for several minutes, as players and coaches mingled with the fans instead of ducking straight into their bus.
Despite its No. 20 ranking, no one gave Georgia (15-3 overall, 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference) much of a chance against No. 2 Florida (15-2, 4-1), which had not lost in 15 straight games at home since falling to the Bulldogs last January. Florida also had won 14 straight games overall this season.
Georgia was short-handed without starting forward Steve Thomas and backup point guard Tony Cole, who are suspended indefinitely while University of Georgia police investigate allegations of an on-campus rape.
Without the two players, Georgia lost at home to No. 16 Alabama, 77-72, Wednesday night and appeared to have less of a chance on the road at Florida.
The Gators looked to be too strong inside, but as was the case at Kentucky, Georgia won with strong shooting (55 percent from the field).
"We won with confidence, confidence and a lot of heart,'' Hayes said. "We wanted to win. We needed to win for the university and for the state.''
With Hayes scoring 23 points, Chris Daniels providing a well-balanced 10 points, seven assists, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, and freshman Fred Gibson adding 13 points off the bench, including four key free throws late in the game, Georgia moved back into a tie for first place in the SEC East.
"It's a tribute to our players; they just got down and played hard and played well and listened,'' said Coach Jim Harrick. "It was a great team effort because we've had an emotional week.''
Georgia plays host to Arkansas Wednesday night at 7:30.