KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Florida’s smothering defense returned to form just in time for the third-ranked Gators to keep their winning streak going.
After falling behind in the first half due to Tennessee’s strong shooting, the Gators stepped up their defense down the stretch and won 67-58 Tuesday night for their 16th consecutive victory. Florida also beat the Volunteers in Knoxville for only the second time in its last nine attempts.
Florida had allowed opponents to shoot just 38.4 percent in its first 22 games of the season before Alabama shot 55 percent in a 78-69 loss to the Gators on Saturday. Tennessee shot 62.5 percent in the first half Tuesday, but the Volunteers made just 29.2 percent (7 of 24) of their attempts after halftime.
“We didn’t press a lot in the first half,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “The game I thought for us just got kind of stagnant. … We wanted the game going up and down the floor, to really get into a racing game, and I thought we pressed predominantly most of the second half. We didn’t turn them over a lot, but it was just disruptive in terms of flow.”
Scottie Wilbekin had 21 points and six assists and Michael Frazier II added 11 points for Florida (22-2, 11-0 SEC). Wilbekin and Frazier both made key 3-pointers down the stretch to put the game out of reach.
Jarnell Stokes had 20 points and 11 rebounds for Tennessee (15-9, 6-5), which was seeking a victory over a highly ranked opponent to boost its NCAA tournament hopes. Jordan McRae had 17 points and Josh Richardson 13.
When the teams last met, Florida routed Tennessee 67-41 in Gainesville on Jan. 25 to hand the Volunteers their most lopsided loss in Cuonzo Martin’s three-year coaching tenure. Tennessee shot 26.8 percent (15 of 56) overall and 1 of 19 from 3-point range in that game.
“We knew we were a better team than that first game anyway, (even) while it was going on,” Richardson said. “We came out and played as well as we could today, and they just outplayed us.”
Tennessee fired up the crowd by having the players walk through a walkway in the Thompson-Boling Arena stands to get to the floor, allowing fans to greet them on their way. The student section behind one basket waved orange glow sticks as Tennessee’s starting lineup was introduced.
That atmosphere might have caused the Vols to get a little too amped up early on. After a basket by Stokes gave the Vols an early 2-0 lead, Florida went on a 10-0 run by scoring seven points off five Tennessee turnovers in the first 4½ minutes.
But once the Vols settled down, they capitalized on their strong shooting to pull ahead. Tennessee outshot Florida in the first half but only led 34-33 at halftime because of Florida’s ability to force turnovers and grab offensive rebounds.
“I was really encouraged coming into the half, just for the fact we’d shot 36 percent from the field and they shot 62 and we’re down by one,” Donovan said. “That’s generally a recipe where you’re down by 12 to 15.”
The shots Tennessee was making in the first half stopped falling after halftime as Florida grabbed a seven-point lead.
The Vols got back into the game by stepping up the intensity on defense even as their own shots weren’t falling. Tennessee cut the lead to 55-54 on Stokes’ three-point play with 4:32 left and had the ball with a chance to take the lead after McRae blocked Wilbekin’s shot.
It was the type of scenario that could have caused the Gators to start thinking about their recent history of frustration in this building. Instead, they created a different finish this time.
Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon committed his eighth turnover of the night, leading to Frazier’s 3-pointer that extended Florida’s lead to 58-54 with 3:32 remaining. Wilbekin, who had missed his first five attempts from behind the arc, also drained a 3 just more than a minute later to pretty much seal the victory.
“I think it has a little bit to do with experience,” Wilbekin said. “Four seniors (in the starting lineup). It’s been a while since we’ve had four seniors on the team. Just stepping up, making big plays on the offensive side and on the defensive side especially, staying locked in and not letting up in the last moments of the game.”