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Tennessee beats Florida to move to SEC semifinals; Alabama up next

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NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Florida vs Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Now in back to back games, Tennessee has handled the Florida Gators. Obviously, today’s win carries much more weight than Sunday’s. The Volunteers advanced to the SEC semifinals today with a 78-66 win over Florida.

The story of the first half was the Tennessee defense — and more particularly Yves Pons. Just days after beating the Gators in Knoxville, Tennessee offered more of the same to open this game. The Vols were stingy and locked in on the defensive end, something that has largely been missing for the last month of the season. Florida’s half-court looks were generating nothing as the Volunteers forced multiple shot clock violations.

Yves Pons played his best half of the season, racking up five blocks in the first nine minutes. It was complete dominance for Tennessee, but turnovers prevented them from completely running away with this one early on.

The Vols were unable to turn that defensive performance into a massive lead, allowing the Gators to hang around in the closing minutes of the first half. The Tennessee lead was once 16 points, but Florida was able to cut it to a nine point game by the halftime break.

Tre Mann and Colin Castleton were held to just two points each in the first half, something that clearly needed to change in the final half of play for Florida. Mann went to work to open the second half, getting two buckets to open.

And then this happened. John Fulkerson took two elbows from Omar Payne and exited the game. Payne was ejected, and Fulkerson didn’t return. Obviously this is a huge deal for Tennessee going forward, with the NCAA Tournament coming next week and Alabama up tomorrow.

That moment reenergized Tennessee, as the Vols immediately turned up the effort. Jaden Springer got to the hoop in back to back possessions and Santiago Vescovi drilled a three to instantly push the Tennessee lead out to 17 points.

Just when it appeared that Florida was about to be buried, the Gators put together a run of their own to get things back to eight points. It was the Tre Mann experience in the second half for Florida, as he attempted to make up for his lackluster performance in the first half.

He did that to the tune of 28 second half points, but on this day, Tennessee was just too locked in. Victor Bailey Jr. hit a three from the corner to squash that run, and the Vols’ defense kicked things up a notch. It was a choppy game from here, with the referees stepping in to calm down the physicality after the Fulkerson incident.

With Florida continuing to hang around, Yves Pons nailed a three, Keon Johnson scored at the rim and Jaden Springer pushed through contact on back to back possessions to score twice more. Vescovi kept that trend moving with a three pointer of his own to push the lead back to 16 points with under five minutes to play.

Every time Florida thought about getting back into this one, Tennessee had an answer. It was the second straight win for the Volunteers, finally stringing some good outings together for the first time in a long time.

Vescovi finished with 14 points to lead Tennessee, while Springer ended with 13. Pons totaled eight blocks on the day, while adding 11 points and eight boards.

Tennessee moves on to face No. 1 seed Alabama on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. ESPN will have the coverage.

Now we all await the status of senior forward John Fulkerson.