Tennessee was thoroughly embarrassed by Florida two weeks ago in Gainesville, in every facet of the game. When now #3 Florida jumped out to a 10-2 lead in the first five minutes tonight, it looked very familiar.
But Tennessee battled back, forging a halftime lead of their own thanks to lights out shooting in the first 20 minutes. Florida immediately regained the lead to open the second half, and Tennessee frustratingly, painfully never got it back.
We were close the whole night. Six point Gator lead at 17:23, battled back to a tie at 15:38. Then a seven point Gator lead at 10:30, 53-46, battled back to within one over the course of six nail-biting minutes. Those minutes started with the Vols switching to their 1-3-1 defense, which immediately produced three Florida turnovers. The Vols had three runouts and converted only one of them. Still, the Vol defense held through two more possessions before a Josh Richardson three made it a two point game. Tennessee still couldn't establish an offensive rhythm, but neither could Florida. Two Gator free throws made it 55-51 with 4:40 to go, but Jarnell Stokes made one of the best plays of his entire career, burying a running hook for an and-one with 4:32 to go, now a one point game at 55-54. And the Vols held one more time, getting the ball with one more chance to take the lead with less than four minutes to play.
Tennessee had held Florida to two points and zero made baskets for six minutes. The crowd - only 18,000 announced, but now in full throat - was ready. This was the moment.
The Vols went inside to their senior leader, Jeronne Maymon. But Maymon lost the ball. It was his eighth turnover of the night.
Florida got down to the other end before the Vols could set their defense, and Michael Frazier buried a three to make it 58-54 with 3:34 to go. After a Stokes miss, Scottie Wilbekin milked the clock and then stuck an absolute dagger over good defense by Josh Richardson to make it 61-54 with 2:27 to go, and that was all she wrote.
So close, so much heart, and so much effort for all those minutes. But in the blink of an eye, Florida turned a one point game into a seven point cushion. That's what great teams do, and Florida is certainly that.
What is Tennessee? Close, again. You can't question effort tonight, and in part your heart has to break for Maymon. The Vols got what they needed from everyone else - 20/11 from Stokes, 30 combined from McRae and Richardson, whose hot shooting kept us alive in the first half, and great slashing offense from Antonio Barton off the bench. But Maymon, who never will be the player he was before his knee surgery two years ago, had two points and eight turnovers. I'm not sure I've ever seen a stat line like it: 2 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 blocks, 8 turnovers, the last three numbers all career highs.
To beat Florida you have to play your best basketball, and the Vols were close, but came up short. It's been Tennessee's calling card under Cuonzo Martin, with the Vols arguably the first team out of the last two NCAA Tournaments and squarely on the bubble again now with an RPI dropping just barely to 49 but now deprived of a chance for another signature win before Atlanta. There are quality wins still on the table, including at Missouri Saturday and the rematch in Knoxville for the season finale, but nothing to make national noise. This can and probably should still be a tournament team, but you can tell something has already been lost because only 18,000ish showed up to watch us play one of our biggest rivals and a nationally elite team in a crucially important game for us. There are some who have already given up on this team and its head coach, and after tonight some others will do the same, because Tennessee is continually close but hasn't quite gotten there in the final analysis under Cuonzo Martin.
The 2014 analysis isn't finished, and Tennessee gets an extra day to rest, process, and move on before facing a tough assignment in Columbia Saturday. Perhaps this team will play better basketball - and they played pretty good basketball tonight - in more of a vacuum with the tournament certainly still on the table, where memories can always be made. For now, their resume is a little emptier and the Vols have to sit with a really tough loss to a really great team, knowing once again we were really close...but not quite good enough at the end.
A team with a lot of veterans and enough basketball left to matter will try to bounce back once again on Saturday. Here's hoping Tennessee can still write a good ending to this season.