Last year, Georgia's split with Florida included a win in Gainesville, Fla., when the Gators were No. 2 in the nation. That is the highest-ranked team Georgia has beaten, but Tuesday night's win was equally sweet - especially for senior Ezra Williams.
"Everything that has happened off the court doesn't affect my jump shot,'' said Williams, who scored 20 points.
An investigation of alleged NCAA violations by Georgia coaches has grabbed the headlines in the last week, but the Bulldogs were not distracted in the nationally televised game.
Hayes scored 21 points as Georgia (18-8 overall, 10-5 in the Southeastern Conference) gave Florida only its third conference loss of the season. A basket by Matt Bonner, who led Florida with 24 points, gave the Gators their last lead at 81-80 with 23 seconds left.
Florida then called a timeout. After Hayes delivered the go-ahead shot for Georgia, Florida had ample time to set up its final possession but never got off its last shot as freshman Matt Walsh tripped while dribbling the ball, regained control and then finally passed to David Lee too late for Lee to attempt the shot.
Georgia students rushed the floor after the final buzzer.
"We wanted to make a point to the (NCAA tournament selection) committee and also that the off-court stuff has not bothered us,'' Hayes said.
Georgia assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr., suspended with pay pending the outcome of an investigation into alleged NCAA rules, watched while standing in a tunnel behind the Georgia bench.
Thanks to a demanding schedule - Georgia lost to No. 2 Kentucky Sunday - and the investigation, the Bulldogs did not even enjoy the luxury of a full practice for the game. Midway through Monday's practice, starters Rashad Wright and Chris Daniels were pulled off the court so they could be interviewed by school officials about the investigation. Despite the distractions, Georgia delivered its biggest win of the season.
"That was a heavyweight bout out there,'' said the elder Harrick. "Our guys played their guys out. It was a great college basketball game. I'm very proud of the team.''
The Bulldogs will close their regular season at South Carolina Sunday at noon. Florida (24-5 overall, 12-3 SEC) plays host to No. 2 Kentucky Saturday.
Each team has had reason to celebrate its regular season.
Though it fell to No. 25 in Monday's polls, Georgia has been in the Top 25 for nine straight weeks - the longest streak in a season in the program's history. Georgia also appears bound for its third straight NCAA tournament appearance, another first for the program.
Though overshadowed much of the season by No. 2 Kentucky, Florida has set a school record for regular-season wins. Florida, in position to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, has a chance to end Kentucky's hopes for an undefeated SEC season when it plays host to the Wildcats Saturday.
While Georgia has been struggling to stay in the Top 25, Florida has been climbing closer to the top spot. Before Tuesday night's loss, the Gators were 5-1 against ranked teams, including wins over two Final Four teams from 2002 - Maryland and Kansas. Its only other loss to a Top 25 team wasn't close - 70-55 at Kentucky on Feb. 4.
Lee scored eight of the Gators' first 10 points, but there were seven ties in the first 11 minutes before Florida took its big lead of the half at 10 points, 34-24, with 5:38 left before the break.
Georgia closed to within five points at 42-37 at halftime. A three-point play by Steve Thomas with 10:14 left to play gave the junior 17 points - his season high in a conference game - and pulled Georgia even at 57-57.
The Bulldogs took their first lead of the game one minute later at 60-58 when Wright took the ball the length of the floor following a rebound. Wright then stole the ball from Matt Walsh and passed to Jarvis Hayes, who jammed for a 62-58 lead.
NOTES: Georgia's 2002 football team came out of the stands at halftime to take a bow for its 2002 SEC championship. Coach Mark Richt told the crowd Georgia's fans "are the best in the nation.''