ATHENS, Ga. — The center of attention in pregame warmups, Florida's Udonis Haslem was the center Georgia couldn't stop in the game.
Unable to match Florida's size and depth and especially unable to match up with Haslem, Georgia fell 1.5 games out of first place with Tuesday night's 85-70 loss to the No. 6 Gators.
With starting forward Steve Thomas serving a one-game suspension for his role in a fight in Saturday's loss at Auburn, Georgia was without its tallest player.
Jarvis Hayes tried to keep Georgia close, but Haslem scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half as Florida (19-4 overall, 8-3 in the Southeastern Conference) beat the Bulldogs (18-7, 7-5) to take control in the Eastern Division.
Georgia led 41-35 at halftime but Florida dominated the second half, outscoring the Bulldogs 50-29.
Georgia now is in a relative tie with Kentucky (16-6, 6-4) for second place in the division. Kentucky visits Georgia Saturday at 1 p.m. Students lined up outside Stegeman Coliseum four hours before tipoff, providing proof of the unusual anticipation for the sellout and battle for first place.
The emotions reached a new high, however, when Haslem fired a ball into the Georgia student section, busting the lip of Georgia law student Jay Ernst. The incident occurred after a ball bounced into the student section and was thrown back, hitting Haslem. According to observers, the ball hit Haslem's shoulder, but he pointed to his face and said "In my face, man.''
Haslem then threw the ball, baseball-style, at the Georgia students. A Florida assistant coach then led Haslem off the floor and the rest of the Florida players followed.
"I apologize to the guy who got hit with the ball,'' Haslem said. "That's about it.''
Haslem was booed loudly when he returned for the final round of pregame warmups, and the boos continued each time he touched the ball or was involved in a play. Neither the boos nor Georgia's inside defense did much to slow the 6-foot-9, 246-pound Haslem , who scored a game-high 26 points, including 20 in the second half.
Its inside game and depth weakened by the loss of Thomas, who watched from the stands a few rows behind the Georgia bench, the Bulldogs needed to avoid fouls and enjoy a strong game from its perimeter players.
Jarvis Hayes held up his end in the first half, making each of his three 3-pointers and leading both teams with 15 points at the break. Hayes finished with 19 points. After the Gators took a 31-29 lead with nine straight points, Georgia answered with 12 straight points for a big lead of 10 points at 41-31 before settling for a 41-35 halftime advantage.
The bad news was Thomas' replacement, Jonas Hayes, picked up his fourth foul on Florida's first possession of the second half. Less than 50 seconds into the half, Georgia coach Jim Harrick was forced to pull Jonas Hayes and bring in 6-foot-5 Ryan Pevey, a former walk-on. While Georgia's tallest players were 6-foot-7 Chris Daniels and the 6-foot-6 Hayes twins, Florida countered with 6-foot-10 Matt Bonner, 6-foot-9 David Lee
Florida patiently worked its offense with several passes on almost every possession in attempts to work the ball inside and take advantage of the size mismatches.
After Bonner scored five quick points when guarded by Pevey, Harrick tried 6-foot-4 Fred Gibson, an inch shorter than Pevey but blessed with great leaping ability. Georgia upset the Gators last month despite giving up double-doubles to Bonner and Haslem, but the Gators were better able to take advantage of their superior size this time. When Daniels, suffering from cramping in both legs, had to come out of the game with about eight minutes left, Harrick was forced to turn back to Jonas Hayes.
No matter the matchup, however, Florida pounded the ball inside to Haslem and Bonner. When Georgia's defense sagged in on the inside players, Brett Nelson hit two 3-pointers in a three-minute span, the second one giving Florida a 59-54 lead with 9:12 left to play.
Daniels returned with 7:17 left to play, but after Georgia pulled to within two points at 59-57, Haslem scored three straight baskets inside and Nelson followed with a jumper for a 67-57 lead with 4:47 left to play.
Trying to guard Haslem, Jonas Hayes picked up his fifth foul with 3:42 left.
NOTE: Harrick confirmed after the game that starting guard Ezra Williams' brother was shot and killed Saturday night. No details were available.
Williams, from Marietta, still started but scored only seven points on 3-for-14 shooting.
"He had the option of whether to play,'' Harrick said. "His parents wanted him to suit up.'' Said Jarvis Hayes of his teammate: "My heart goes out to him. I know losing his brother, at times his heart was not in the game. He's hurting. We need to give him all the time he needs to regroup.''