ATLANTA, Ga. – Two tough calls might’ve cost Tennessee a chance to beat the nation’s No. 1 team and advance to the SEC tournament finals.
In fairness, Tennessee (21-12, 11-7 SEC) also had a chance to take care of its own business without needing any help from the officials in a 56-49 loss to Florida.
Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon was whistled for his fourth foul at the 4:39 mark of the second half, a questionable off-the-ball bump that is generally overlooked. Maymon demonstrated what he thought happened to the ref, walked away and was assessed a technical foul, which also counted as his fifth personal and ended his afternoon early.
“Wasn’t really told anything,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of the call. “I watched his body language. He didn’t use any curse words, swear, whatever you want to call it. He didn’t do any of that.
“Maybe his tone or maybe his approach and his body language caused him to get the technical, but I watched his lips closely, so there wasn’t anything derogatory that was said.”
Florida (31-2, 18-0) hit all four free throws in that sequence to take a 49-45 lead at that point. Even without Maymon, the Vols hung tough against the likely No. 1 overall seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. A Jordan McRae 3-pointer tied it up at 49 with 2:30 remaining. Florida hit a bucket on the other end and McRae took it back down the court, drew contact and was stripped by the Gators, but there was no whistle.
Florida’s Casey Prather then charged down the court ahead of the Vols and was grabbed by Antonio Barton as he went up for a layup. Barton was called for a flagrant foul on the play, giving Florida two more free throws, which Prather hit, and the ball.
The Vols, which wore their 'Smokey' gray alternate uniforms for the first time this season, never recovered from that 53-49 deficit.
“I don’t want to complain,” said UT forward Jarnell Stokes. “I feel like Florida made some big plays. They have a great team. So there were some calls I didn’t like, but that’s part of it. I’m just a player and I let the referees do their job.”
And while there were clearly some questions about the circumstances around those calls, Tennessee, which played maybe its best first half of the season, had a chance to take it out of the officials’ hands.
After an early deficit, UT’s first in over 200 minutes of game time, the Vols went on a 6-0 spurt to take an 11-9 lead. Fueled by a 14-4 run in the first half, the Vols led by 10 with a few seconds left before Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin hit a 3 to cut the lead down to seven at the break.
It was the second-largest deficit Florida has faced this season through 20 minutes. Florida then went on a 10-2 run early in the second half to retake its first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
Tennessee’s defense stiffened up, but the offense all but disappeared against arguably the nation’s best defensive squad. The Vols went over seven minutes without a point during the middle stretch of the second half. Tennessee scored just 14 total second-half points on 5 of 20 (25%) shooting from the field. And the Vols never found their stroke from deep, hitting just 2 of 13 (15.4%) from behind the arc in the game.
“I think we had some shots that we normally make, but today they didn’t fall,” said McRae. “But I don’t think they did anything different than they did in the first half.”
“Our guys, we feel like we came into the game ready to win the game,” added Martin. “Just came up short. The two best defensive teams in the league, and they made the plays down the stretch.”
The Vols will now have to wait until Sunday to know their NCAA tournament fate. Martin and the players think they’re in. Most bracket experts have them squeezing in the field of 68 as well.
With an RPI that will likely finish in the low 40s and an impressive strength of schedule, UT’s strong finish to the season and respectable effort against the Gators should be enough to send the Vols dancing for the first time since 2011. But for the third straight season, it will be in the committee’s hands.
If all goes as expected, expect the Vols to claim a seed somewhere around No. 10-12 and possibly to be placed in the ‘First Four’ games in Dayton that kick off the tournament.
“I feel like the statement was already made before coming into this game,” Stokes said.
They’ll know if that’s true for sure on Sunday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga