KNOXVILLE – Tennessee was the better team for 20 minutes on Tuesday night against Florida in front of over 18,000 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The No. 3 Gators were the better squad for 40 minutes, however. Florida, showing why many consider it to be a national title contender, held off a UT rally down the stretch to hold on for the win, moving the Gators to a perfect 11-0 in SEC play.
"It's tough,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. “I thought it was a tremendous environment. The fans were great, but it's tough. We felt like we were ready to win the game. We felt like we did everything to prepare to win the game.”
But turnovers, among other factors, got in the way. The Vols (15-9, 6-5 SEC) lost the ball 15 times – including eight turnovers by senior forward Jeronne Maymon – mostly in their half-court sets. They survived Florida’s press in most circumstances, but the small details hurt UT.
“Again, you've got to take care of the basketball,” said Martin, who added that he never considered taking Maymon out despite his tough night. “Against a good team you can't make those type of mistakes in taking care of the basketball, in being careless with the ball. It's part of it. It's a tough thing to deal with, but we've got to keep moving."
The Vols, which dropped a 67-41 decision at Florida on Jan. 25, had a great shot to pull off the upset with approximately five minutes remaining on Tuesday night. Jarnell Stokes converted a three-point play with 4:32 remaining to cut the Florida lead, which had been as many as seven points in the second half, down to one.
Two possessions later, Florida guard Michael Frazier hit a 3 to push the lead back to four. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin's 3-pointer put Florida up 61-54 with just over two minutes left, giving the Gators enough breathing room to hold on for just their 16th win all-time in Knoxville in 60 tries.
Missed opportunities from this game will haunt the Vols. Martin switched Tennessee to the 1-3-1 zone defense with approximately nine minutes remaining. Tennessee snatched a steal on the first three possessions of the new look, but could only turn those into two points. Two missed free throws by Jarnell Stokes and a missed dunk by Josh Richardson cost UT a chance for some easy points.
“I just missed it,” said Richardson, who finished with 13 points. “We just weren't capitalizing on our opportunities. In the first half we were hitting a lot of shots and in the second half we just slowed down."
Florida opened the game by picking up right where it left off from its dominating performance in Gainesville. The Gators jumped out to a 10-2 lead. They controlled the glass early, grabbing six offensive rebounds in the first five minutes.
But unlike the game in Gainesvile, however, Tennessee fought back. The Vols, which shot just 26.8 percent at Florida, hit shot after shot against a stingy Florida defense – shooting as high as 75 percent from the field at various points during the first half before ending the first 20 minutes with a 62.5 percent shooting performance from the field.
A coast-to-coast dunk by Jordan McRae cut Florida’s lead down to 22-20 at the 8:24 mark of the first half. A 10-0 run shortly after that had the Vols up 32-26 at the 3:44 mark.
Jarnell Stokes missed an opportunity to extend the lead before the half, missing the front end of a 1-and-1, and Wilbekin took it down to the other end and hit a short floater to pull the Gators back to within one before the break.
“We didn't do a very good job those last nine seconds we missed a 1-and-1, and they came down and Wilbekin made the jump shot, the pull-up around the rim,” Martin said. “So, we didn't do a good job of keeping them in front of us and keeping them out of the lane."
Florida scored on its first four offensive possessions of the second half to re-take the lead. Though UT kept the game within a few possessions the rest of the way, the Vols were never able to regain the lead from that point on.
Wilbekin led the Gators with 21 points, while Frazier contributed 11. Tennessee finished with three players in double-digit scoring –Stokes (20 points), McRae (17) and Richardson (13).
Tennessee will have the day off Wednesday before beginning preparations for its trip to Missouri on Saturday (4 p.m. ET).
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga