KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Volunteers shot a rip-roaring 62.5 percent in the first half compared to an ice-cold 36.4 for the Florida Gators. Guard Jordan McRae, one of the Southeastern Conference’s most explosive offensive players, had more than doubled the season-low five points he tallied in Gainesville last month, and UT had a lead with its home crowd very much into the game.
Gators coach Billy Donovan was OK with all of it.
"We were only down one," he said. "Generally, that’s a recipe for being down 12 or 15."
Even at UT’s torrid shooting pace, UF had managed to force the Vols into some challenged shots, mostly 2-pointers, several of which they made and the likes of which Donovan could live with. But the Gators countered by forcing turnovers, making free throws and crashing the offensive glass. The combination allowed them to stay in the game.
And take it over in the second half.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin scored 14 of his carer-high 21 points after halftime, putting those numbers alongside six assists, four steals and zero turnovers to lead the third-ranked Gators to a rugged 67-58 come-from-behind beating of the Vols before 18,009 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
For Florida (22-2, 11-0), the win was the team’s 16th in a row and kept it unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play, but also was just the third in the 12 visits to a venue that had been unkind to the Gators. UF came in having dropped seven of the last eight in the SEC’s second-largest building.
The outcome also set the stage for a huge showdown Saturday, when UF faces Kentucky at Rupp Arena with serious SEC implications on the floor.
Wilbekin, though, promised this senior-laden squad came here thinking Tennessee and only Tennessee.
"This game was the biggest thing on all our minds," Wilbekin said after making just six of his 17 shots, only one of his six 3-point attempts, yet maintaining utter command of the game through its entirety. "We weren’t thinking about anything else. Not the last game, not the next game. We knew how important this win was to all of us and we tried to come out and give it our all."
Anyone who watched Patric Young, with four fouls, hurl his body through the air, past two Vols, and tip a 50-50 ball back in play, to a teammate, to save a late-game possession, would attest to that "give it our all" statement.
Or as Young put it; "We knew we had to go in there and bleed and battle and fight and bite and scratch and scar just try and come up with some loose balls."
Even though Tennessee (15-9, 6-5) made 15 of its 24 shots in the first half, Florida trailed just 34-33 at the break, thanks to Wilbekin’s rebound and coast-to-coast floater at the first-half horn.
"The coaches told us they were going to try to punch us on the home court," Wilbekin said. "We had to punch back."
In the locker room, Donovan praised his team for keeping to the plan of matching the Vols physicality — specifically the twin tree-trunk banging of forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymonn, both at 6-foot-8, 260 pounds — and limiting their shot selection to contested 2-pointers.
"We could live with those," Donovan said.
Especially having forced nine turnovers, winning the offensive glass 9-3, and a scoring a slight edge from the free-throw line.
The Gators, though, needed to warm up on the offensive end and a 9-2 run to the start the second pushed UF in front by six, but a running bank shot by McRae (17 points) tied the game at 44.
That’s where Florida started inching out. First came a post-up hook from Young (6 points, 6 rebounds), followed by a 3-pointer by reserve guard DeVon Walker. That gave the Gators a five-point cushion, that later grew to seven with less than 10 minutes to go.
Three straight UF turnovers, though, kept matters close, and the Vols came back. While the Gators went nearly eight minutes without a field goal (and just two points), UT drew to 55-54 on a 3-point play from Stokes (20 points, 11 rebounds) with 4:32 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Wilbekin worked through the lane and attempted a layup that McRae swatted away. At UT’s end, Young tipped a pass by Maymonn, one of his eight turnovers, with ball ending up in Frazier’s hand. Frazier outletted to Wilbekin, who raced up court, then fed the trailing Frazier at the top of the key.
"Scottie knows where I like to get the ball and knows my spots," Frazier said. "He hit me in stride. It was a perfect sequence."
After the beefy Stokes took and missed a 17-footer (one of those 2-pointers Donovan gladly lived with), the Gators’ next possession was winding down when Wilbekin, with nothing doing in the halfcourt, rose up from the top of the circle.
He was 0-for-5 from the 3-point line when the shot went up.
He was 1-for-6 when it landed and the Gators had a seven-point lead with 2:22 to go.
"He’s the leader of their team," McRae said of Wilbekin. "He hits big shots when they need them most."
Free throws, too. Wilbekin notched five of six down the stretch to seal the deal, twice padding the lead after the Gators grabbed key offensive rebounds (they had 18) and battled for loose balls like their season depended on it. They guarded like it too, with the Vols’ going only 9-for-25 (36 percent) after intermission, with four players grabbing at least five rebounds.
"You can’t give that type of team leeway or room to make plays or get their heads up," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I thought they did a great job keeping their composure and making their plays in a timely fashion."
Young going airborne was a perfect example of one team playing harder than the other. His play of sheer desire bought UF another possession, helped run more time off the clock, got the Gators to free-throw line.
"He sold out," Donovan said.
It’s easy to sell out when everybody is bought in.
The Gators, now 5-0 on the road in league play, are playing like a team that is very much locked in on the task at hand.