The #3 Florida Gators survived hot first half shooting by the Tennessee Volunteers and inconsistent calls by the referees to win their 16th consecutive victory 67-58. In the first of a tough stretch of games in which the Gators play 4 of 5 games on the road all against the top tier of the SEC, the Gators used a strong second half defensive performance to outlast the Vols and remain undefeated in conference play (11-0, 22-2 overall).
Once again the Gators used a familiar formula, opening on a 10-2 run by forcing turnovers with strong pressure defense, then watched as a hot shooting Volunteer team made tough shot after tough shot to take a 6 point lead before the Gators battled back to make it a one point deficit at the half. For a half it seemed as if the Vols couldn’t miss, shooting 62.5% from the field and 50% from three. And the Gators couldn’t seem to get a foul call. It’s as if the referees were sitting back eating popcorn watching Jarnell Stokes bang underneath the basket. He had 10 points and 8 rebounds at the half. Jordan McRae who went o-15 in their last meeting in Gainesville led all scorers with 11 first half points.
Despite the hot shooting start for the Vols, the Gators weren’t fazed. They played well enough defensively, Tennessee just made some ridiculous shots. Head coach Billy Donovan, when interviewed coming out of halftime, mentioned that he was pleased with the Gator’s efforts on defense in the first half giving credit to the Vol players for making difficult shots. After the game, Scottie Wilbekin was asked about the Gators defensive efforts in the first half.
“We got off to a hot start,” Wilbekin said. “But we did let them get open for some 3, they also made tough shots.”
Offensively, the Gators were befuddled by the Vols 1-3-1 zone in the first half, repeatedly settling for contested jump shots or making out of control drives into the lane. The Gators shot only 36% from the floor in the first half helping the Vols on a 14-4 run to take control and get the home crowd fired up. The Gators recovered in time to close the half on a 7-2 run going into halftime down only one at 34-33.
“The coaches said they punched us and we wanted to punch back,” Wilbekin said of the late first half run by the Gators.
The second half was another story altogether. The Vols went cold from the floor and the Gators matched the Vols physicality and hustle repeatedly beating them to loose balls and rebounds to take control from the start and outlast Tennessee to the end. Give the Vols credit, they threw everything they had at the Gators but it still wasn’t enough.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin had a monster game forcing turnovers and leading the Gators with a career high 21 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. Wilbekin also hit a huge three point shot with 2:27 remaining as the shot clock expired to give the Gators a 7 point lead and put a dagger into the Tennessee team.
“I wasn’t thinking about the five I missed,” Wilbekin said when asked about the clutch shot. “I knew we needed a good shot for our team.”
The shot came at a most opportune time because the Vols had threatened to take the lead less than a minute earlier before Michael Frazier drained a three off an assist by Wilbekin to make it a four point game. That two possession stretch which was sandwiched by a Volunteer turnover and a Jarnell Stokes missed jumper helped to seal Tennessee’s fate. Once again, as he has all season, Wilbekin made a clutch shot when the Gators needed it and ultimately he was the difference in the game for the Gators.
“I thought he was great all-the-way around,” Donovan said of Wilbekin.
Shortly after Scottie’s clutch three, Patric Young made perhaps the play of the game getting airborne and diving to beat a Tennessee player to a loose ball rebound and retain possession. The hustle play helped the Gators run clock and forced the Vols to start fouling to have any shot at an upset. But Scottie Wilbekin hit free throws down the stretch to close out the victory, the Gator’s first in Knoxville in two years.
The Patric Young play was evidence of the Gators improved physicality in the second half after the Vols pushed them around in the first half. The Gators were determined not to let that happen in the second half, pounding the glass and hustling for loose balls.
“We knew we had to bleed and battle and scratch and fight to get boards,” Young said.
The win marked the Gators sixth consecutive road victory the first time in school history they’ve won six in a row on the road in the same season. Their 22-2 record ties the school record for best 24 game start in school history with the 2006-2007 team which went 24-2 to open the season. The Gators face another tough road test on Saturday when they travel to Lexington, Ky to take on the #14 Wildcats. Tip off is scheduled for 9 pm eastern and the game will once again be broadcast on ESPN.