It wasn’t easy, but the No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers (14-5, 5-3) found a way to get it done against the Florida Gators (12-8, 3-5) after a rough first half of basketball.
Santiago Vescovi led the way with 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting as Tennessee outscored Florida by 16 points in the second half en route to its seventh win in the last eight meetings and sixth win in a row at home.
Kowacie Reeves drained a 3 to start the game, but Vescovi quickly tied it up with a 3 of his own on the next possession. An offensive rebound led to a Jason Jitoboh layup that resulted in a 5-3 Florida lead, but Kennedy Chandler immediately matched it with a jumper his own to tie the game back up. Another Vescovi 3 gave the Vols an 8-5 lead, but it was a short-lived lead as Tyree Appleby sunk one from beyond the arc on the next possession to put the game in a tie, once again. Appleby then hit another 3, which was followed up with a Brandon McKissic layup to make it a 13-10 game in favor of the Gators.
Both teams started a combined 9-of-12 over the first 4:25 of play, but six straight Tennessee turnovers led to a 13-0 Florida run after they trailed, 10-8. That extended to a 15-0 run after a Myreon Jones dunk pushed Florida’s lead to 23-10 with 11:58 to go in the first period.
Vescovi and Appleby were hit with a double technical soon after, but Tennessee couldn’t end Florida’s run even with a second-chance bucket. Zakai Zeigler ended it on the next possession, however, with his first bucket of the game. The 3 not only ended Florida’s run, but it also ended a six-minute scoring drought for the Vols. Zeigler hit another one from downtown on the subsequent possession and then blocked Florida’s following shot attempt, which led to a Chandler 3.
Zeigler literally created a 9-0 Tennessee run and the Vols were back in the game, 23-19.
Tennessee’s run went as far as 11-0 -which made it a 23-21 game- before Reeves drained another 3 to kill the run and put Florida up, 26-21, but Justin Powell answered with his first 3 of the game to cut the lead to 26-24.
But more Tennessee turnovers and more missed shots allowed the Gators to take a 31-24 lead with 4:40 left in the first half. Phlandrous Fleming knocked one down from 3 to push Florida’s run to 8-0 and its lead to 34-24 before he drilled a jumper a few possessions later to make it a 36-24 game. John Fulkerson’s free throws ended the misery for the Vols, but they still trailed, 36-26, and had gone over four minutes without a bucket at this point. Uros Plavsic was hit with a technical after Fulkerson’s free throws, as well, which allowed Appleby to hit both free throws and make it a 38-26 game with 2:45 to go in the first half.
The Gators’ lead reached 40-28 and Tennessee’s bucket-less drought went nearly six minutes before Vescovi’s 3 made it a 40-31 game with just over a minute left. He sunk another one to make it a 42-34 game, which ended up as the score entering halftime.
The scoring deficit bounced between 8-10 points over the first couple of minutes of the second half before Zeigler’s 3 made it a 46-41 game. Tennessee continued to fight and eventually cut Florida’s lead to 48-45 with 15:46 to go in the second half.
The Vols were able to get within a point of tying the game at 48, but Appleby immediately came through with a 3 on the other end to make it a 51-47 game. A Vescovi 3 made it a one-point game, again, but a second chance bucket for the Gators pushed it back to 53-50 on the next possession.
It remained a one-score game until Powell stole the ball from Anthony Duruji and Vescovi capitalized with a layup to make it a 56-55 game 10:25 to go. This was Tennessee’s first lead since it led, 10-8, earlier in the game.
Josiah Jordan-James drained one from beyond the arc a few possessions later to make it a 59-55 game and Fulkerson’s layup on the next possession gave Tennessee a 61-55 lead thanks to a 9-0 run.
Tennessee kept it around a two-possession lead over the next few minutes until Jones’ 3 cut the lead to 65-62. Fulkerson converted an and-1 opportunity soon after and Tennessee led, 68-62 with 4:00 left in the game.
There was still plenty of time for Florida to make a comeback. It looked as if the game was going to get interesting with a minute left. Vescovi was initially called for a foul, but the play was reviewed and Florida ended up getting called for a hook-and-hold, which put Vescovi at the foul line instead of the Gators.
Vescovi made both free throws and the Vols received the ball back with a 72-66 lead and one minute left in the game, 72-66.
Tennessee went on to win, 78-71. They are now 14-5 on the season with a 5-3 record in conference play. The Vols will take on the Texas Longhorns in Austin, Texas on Saturday, January 29. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.