ATLANTA—Tennessee went into halftime of its game with Florida feeling good about its chance to reach the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament for the fourth straight year.
The league-champion Gators quickly buried the Volunteers’ positive energy.
All five Florida starters scored in double figures as the Gators took control midway through the second half and cruised to a 85-74 win Friday night in a tournament quarterfinal at the Georgia Dome.
“From one to five and maybe one bench player,” UT center Brian Williams said, “they might possibly be one of the best in the country. They showed it the second half tonight.”
Freshman Tobias Harris tied a career high with 25 points for the Vols (19-14), who went 16 years from 1992 to 2007 without advancing past the quarterfinal round before a three-year run. UT will learn its NCAA tournament fate on Sunday night.
“They made shots,” said Harris, who scored 18 first-half points. “We shot too many jump shots and didn’t make them. We didn’t play with no heart throughout the second half. [Florida] got to the free-throw line a lot of times, and we didn’t do a good enough job of going back at them and getting into our stuff.”
Harris hit a trey from the corner to cap an 18-2 run closing the first half after Florida (25-6) made 12 of its first 18 shots in building a 25-13 lead. The Gators made just one of 11 shots after the scorching start.
Florida, which beat UT for the third time this season, started the second half in a similar fashion, making nine of their first 11 shots and taking a 59-52 lead on the strength of an 18-8 run over a five-minute stretch.
Two Harris foul shots cut UT’s deficit to five before the Gators ripped off nine of the next 10 points. Kenny Boynton, who scored all but two of his 22 points after halftime, had a three-point play and a trey during the surge that put Florida up 75-62 with 4:21 left in the game. UT got no closer than nine the rest of the way.
“Our defense was nonexistent,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “And when you allow a team to score 56 points in the second half and send them to the foul line as often as we sent them, you’ve got no chance to win.”
In the second halves of the last four games, the Vols have allowed their opponents to shoot 57 percent from the field.
“It’s been the same thing the whole season,” Williams said. “We’re away from our bench, our ball-screen coverage was wrong. We were down nine to two in fouls in the first four minutes, so we couldn’t play as aggressive as we wanted to and like we did in the first half.”
Florida shot 82 percent in the second half and 59 percent for the game. The Gators took just 17 second-half shots but made 33 trips to the free-throw stripe as UT was whistled for 21 fouls in the second half. The teams combined for just 11 fouls in the entire first half, and the Vols struggled to adjust to the quicker whistle in the second half.
“Toward the end of the first half we were playing very aggressive defense,” said guard Josh Bone, who fouled out. “We can’t control the game in that way. It was tough not being able to play that aggressive. In the second half, not being able to play that way, it hurt us a lot. We could have [adjusted], but we didn’t, obviously.”
UT took 21 free throws of its own in the second half, but the Vols shot just 39 percent from the field. Scotty Hopson scored 19 points but turned the ball over seven times.
“A lot of quick whistles,” Harris said, “but at the same time we didn’t do nothing on the offensive end to go back at them. That’s when they really got their groove going.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...