Yante Maten deserved a moment like this.
The senior forward has been outstanding for Georgia amid a season that hasn’t turned out the way it was expected back in November.
The Bulldogs held aspirations for an NCAA Tournament berth. And to be fair, that quest isn't over. After Wednesday’s 72-69 win over Florida in Gainesville, hope still exists. If Georgia, which now has a combined eight Quadrant 1 and 2 victories, can pick up enough wins in upcoming games against Tennessee (twice), South Carolina, LSU and Texas A&M, perhaps its tourney prospects improve.
This outside shot of rectifying an otherwise frustrating season began late Wednesday. The Bulldogs trailed by 6 on the road at Florida and seemed destined for another loss.
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Maten, Georgia’s senior leader and one of a few candidates for SEC Player of the Year, then drained a contested 3-pointer with 15.8 seconds left to play. The Bulldogs followed the 3-ball with some full-court pressure and forced Florida’s Jalen Hudson into a traveling violation. As Georgia looked for a final shot, the Gators did a good job denying Tyree Crump a good look. So he deferred to Maten, who hoisted up a long shot from the top of the key. With 5.1 seconds left, the ball fell through the bottom of the net to tie the game at 59.
With that shot, Georgia forced the game into overtime. The Bulldogs then took the lead, held on and defeated Florida in Gainesville for the first time since 2002. They swept the Gators for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
Maten deserved that moment. He has been an unselfish leader producing on a game-by-game basis, despite the opposition’s focused attempts to stop him. Maten bleeds Georgia red and black. He and his family say divine intervention led him to Athens. Maten wasn’t a heralded prospect out of Bloomfield Hills High School in Potomac, Michigan. And late in the recruiting process, Michigan State smartened up and extended a scholarship offer.
Maten and his mother turned to their Christian faith to figure out which college would be best for him. The two prayed in their living room, hoping for a sign. When they were finished praying, they turned on the television.
"My mom and I were both praying and she asked me, 'What did you hear?' I told her Georgia," Maten said. "She said the same thing. We didn't have cable at home, we only got a couple of stations. And a Georgia song started playing."
Maten has more than exceeded what was expected of him as a three-star recruit. He’s averaging an SEC-best 19.5 points per game. He now has 10 double-doubles this season and 26 in his career.
When it’s all said and done, Maten will be regarded as one of the best to have played for Georgia. Having gone to the NCAA Tournament as a freshman, Maten surely deserves another chance to play in the big dance.
His heroics against Florida are indicative of a player who wants to take his team back to the NCAA Tournament. He needs some help from his teammates - and, yes, this coaching staff - to get Georgia back in the conversation.
As it stands, many fans and local pundits have already moved on to discuss who will be the next coach at Stegeman Coliseum. From the outside perspective, the season has been disappointing, considering the talent on the roster. But the 2017-18 season isn't over yet. Georgia still has opportunities, although they are closer to being of the last-chance variety.
The Bulldogs have been mired in a slump throughout SEC play. Sandwiched in between wins over Florida were three losses. Georgia has dropped seven of its last 10 games. So while a season-sweep over Florida is nice, it won’t matter if Georgia can’t drastically turn things around over these five final regular-season games.
That stated, Maten refuses to quit.
He said as much following Georgia’s 78-61 loss to Auburn last Saturday. Until it's over, Maten will continue to give it his all on the floor with hopes of getting back to the NCAA Tournament he appeared in three years ago.
“I haven't given up anything in my life,” Maten said. “Being a leader of this team, I'm going to relay that message that we don't give up. That's not how we roll at Georgia. At the end of the day, we made our own bed. We have to fix it.”