A double-bye. Senior Day. SEC Tournament implications on the line. The season finale.
A Tennessee win would allow the Vols to swap spots with the Gators in terms of seeding. The Gators came into the game as the No. 4 seed in the SEC, the Vols No. 5. A win would give the Vols the ever-coveted double-bye, but a loss would eliminate any shot of claiming the double-bye and would also drop the Vols down to the sixth seed.
The Gators —without Trey Mann, their leading scorer— were able to climb to a 14-point lead in the first half, but Tennessee’s ferocious second half performance was the catalyst in the comeback win. Keon Johnson, John Fulkerson, and Victor Bailey Jr. all tied for the team lead with 14 points and the Vols outscored the Gators, 37-21 in the second half.
Tennessee’s second half performance was one of the better halves of basketball they’ve played all year. As frustrating as the season has been, it was good to see them put everything together when it mattered most.
Santiago Vescovi started the scoring with a jumper on Tennessee’s first possession, whic gave the Vols a 2-0 lead in the first minute of the game. Good defense from both sides caused both teams to miss the next combined five shots, but Florida was finally able to tie it up at two points apiece thanks to a Colin Castleton jumper. Fulkerson put the Vols back up by two with a shot of his own, but back-to-back Gator scores put Florida up, 7-4, with 15:57 left in the first half.
Tennessee was able to hit back-to-back shots themselves to go back, 8-7, but that didn’t last long. Anthony Duruji immediately responded with a monster slam on the other end of the court and was able to convert the and-1 opportunity to make it a 10-8 game. Josiah Jordan-James came right back with a 3 to put the Vols back up by one point, but this time it was Noah Locke who came through with a 3 of his own to put the Gators back up by two. Locke’s shot represented three lead changes in as many possessions.
Florida’s lead grew to 15-11 with 12:05 to go in the first half and Mike White’s crew was able to keep its distance for a good bit, but the lead eventually grew to 23-15 with 9:20 left before halftime. Florida was able to assemble a 10-4 run and hit four straight shots, which were the obvious catalysts to the eight-point lead.
The minutes continued to pass and Florida’s lead continued to grow. Tennessee’s offense was simply not playing well. Florida wasn’t really doing anything special on offense itself, but it was still finding ways to score points. A five minute span saw Tennessee register a 2-of-8 mark from the floor and miss four shots from the charity stripe. Florida was to put together another solid run —this time a 13-5 run— during the same amount of time and led, 33-20, with 3:57 left in the first half.
But as bad as the first 16:03 was, Tennessee was able to close out strong. A Victor Bailey Jr. 3 ignited an 8-0 Tennessee run over the final four minutes of the first half. The defense did its part (Florida shot 1-of-7 from the field over its last eight shots) and the Vols entered halftime down 33-28.
Neither team shot the ball well in the first half. The Vols were just 41.4% from the floor that included a 2-of-12 mark from downtown, while the Gators shot 48.3% that included a 3-of-9 mark from 3.
Both teams had six turnovers apiece, but the Gators really took advantage of the mistakes and scored 10 points off turnovers in the first half compared to the Vols’ four points off turnovers. Tennessee’s bench was playing well, however, with 12 points in the first half compared to five from Florida’s bench.
No matter how you cut it, Tennessee’s offense had to play better in the second half.
“Better” wasn’t the word to use on the Vols’ first possession of the second half. Jaden Springer airballed the first shot of the second half, Fulkerson missed a 3, and then Springer turned the ball over at Yves Pons was able to snag the offensive rebound.
Fortunately for the Vols, the play from the first possession didn’t bleed over into the subsequent ones, but Tennessee couldn’t cut into Florida’s lead outside of a Pons free throw that made it a four-point game.
But the Vols kept at it and Florida’s reign of terror —in terms of the lead— finally came to an end with 12:16 left in the game. Vescovi drilled a fadeaway jumper to end the Gators’ 20:32 stay in front. Tennessee was able to compile a 7-2 run and held the Gators without a bucket over a 3:15 span that started with another Bailey 3-pointer. Bailey came through yet again with a physical bucket and a converted and-1 opportunity to put the Vols up, 45-41, with 11:09 left in the game.
All of a sudden, Tennessee had a lot of momentum.
An incredible effort on an offensive rebound then the put-back from Keon Johnson put Tennessee up, 53-43, with 7:33 to go. Tennessee was executing at a high level and you could see the want and desire in the play from Rick Barnes’ crew. A signature Pons block —and I mean he BLOCKED the shot— that led to a Johnson dunk not only exemplified Tennessee’s recent dominance, but it was also a testament to the team’s physical play.
A Jordan-James jumper gave Tennessee its biggest lead of the game, 57-46, with 4:59 left in the game. Tennessee’s defense was playing exceptional well and Florida had scored on just six of its last 28 possessions. The Gator offense looked completely lost without Mann on the court.
Florida’s offense never found a rhythm as the Vols went on to win, 65-54.
The Vols went 15-of-33 from the floor in the second half (27-of-62 overall), but it was their physical style of play that really keyed the comeback. Tennessee outrebounded the Gators, 22-11, in the second half and the bench chipped in 10 more points, giving it 22 total points for the game. The Vols also demonstrated good ball movement in the second half with six assists compared to the Gators’ one.
Now, it’s all about whether or not the second half performance carries over into Friday’s matchup or not.
Tennessee finishes the year with a 17-7 overall record that includes a 10-7 record in conference play. The Vols will enter the SEC Tournament as the fourth seed, with their opponent currently to be determined. Tipoff is scheduled for Friday, March 2 at 2PM EST.
You can check out the final score and stats here.