No. 12 Florida too much for Tennessee

The way Florida played at the end of the first half, it looked as though the SEC champions might be one-and-done in the league tournament.

The Gators weren’t about to let that happen.

Kenny Boynton scored 22 points and No. 12 Florida rebounded after closing the first half with a scoreless stretch of nearly 6 1/2 minutes, beating Tennessee 85-74 Friday night in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.

All five starters were in double figures for the Gators (25-6), who picked up their trophy for winning the regular-season title before the game, then played like champions in the second half.

Florida missed only three shots from the field and got to the foul line a staggering 33 times. The result was a 56-point half — its highest of the season.

”Their offense was absolutely on fire,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. ”And our defense was nonexistent.”

The Vols’ frustration boiled over when Pearl barked about a call his son Steven didn’t get, immediately drawing a technical. The elder Pearl was so upset he ripped off his jacket, revealing bright orange suspenders that matched his orange tie.

Not wanting to pick up another T, the coach twice sent his players over to the officials to complain about calls. But afterward, Pearl didn’t make excuses.

”When you allow a team to score 56 points in the second half or shoot the way they shot and send them to the foul line as often as we sent them, you’ve got no chance to win,” he said.

Tennessee (19-14) closed the first half on a 21-4 run and went to the locker room up 34-29. The Gators failed to score over the final 6:24, dragging off the court as if they weren’t sure what hit them.

But Florida shook it off in the second half. Boynton delivered a crushing blow, a three-pointer with 4:26 remaining, posing with his hand outstretched in front of the Gators’ bench.

”We weren’t playing selfishly, but we were playing as individuals,” coach Billy Donovan said. ”I thought we played well together in the second half.”

Florida advanced to face Vanderbilt or Mississippi State in Saturday’s semifinals, while Tennessee will await its fate on Selection Sunday. Despite the loss and a fifth-place finish in the SEC East, the Vols could land a spot in the 68-team NCAA tournament field based on their solid RPI and one of the nation’s toughest schedules.

Tobias Harris led Tennessee with 25 points.

”Obviously, we could have improved our seeding tremendously by beating Florida,” Pearl said. ”I still feel like we are a team that’s worthy of the tournament. … But I know a lot of great teams are out there, and so we’ll wait until Sunday and find out if and where we’re going.”

The Gators were cruising in the first half, going up 25-13 on Boynton’s lay-in off a pass from Chandler Parsons, but Tennessee turned up the defensive pressure and Florida crumbled.

Erving Walker’s floating jumper gave the Gators a 29-25 lead — their final points of the half. Florida’s last 11 possessions went like this: seven missed shots, another miss on the front end of a 1-and-1, and three turnovers.

Harris carried the Vols, accounting for more than half their offensive output with 18 points. He sparked Tennessee with a three-point play and scored their final points of the period on a three-pointer.

”We were just kind of out of sorts a bit,” Donovan said.

Whatever he said at halftime, it sure worked.

The Gators were about as efficient as a team could be over the final 20 minutes. They went 14 of 17 from the field and really piled up the points at the foul line, going 24 of 33. Pounding the ball inside, Florida reached the bonus with more than 12 1/2 minutes left in the game.

”We weren’t effective communicating,” Pearl said. ”We weren’t dictating where Florida could go.”

In the first half, the Gators went to the line only four times.

”We didn’t slide our feet. We sent them to the foul line, they stepped up and made their free throws, and they played great down the stretch,” said Scotty Hopson, who scored 19 for Tennessee.

Walker had 17 points, Vernon Macklin 15, Parsons 12 and Alex Tyus 10 for the Gators, who completed a season sweep of Tennessee. The Gators won in overtime at Knoxville, then pulled out a 61-60 win on a basket in the closing seconds in Gainesville.

No last-second heroics needed this time.

Not the way the Gators played over the final 20 minutes.

”In the second half,” Walker said, ”we got tough and we took care of the ball.”