What started as a big opportunity soon turned into a bigger debacle Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.
The Tennessee men's basketball team went to Florida looking to improve its NCAA tournament resume and instead limped home after flopping in significant fashion.
The sixth-ranked Gators won their 11th straight game this season and 26th consecutive game at the intimidating "O-Dome" by whipping the Volunteers 67-41.
"We'll watch parts that we need to watch and learn from it," Vols coach Cuonzo Martin told the Vol Network after the game. "It's a tough loss. You've got to learn from it. As painful as it is, you've got to watch the film and grow from it.
"As a coach, I understand, and our players, it's a painful loss. As a player, you take pride in playing well and playing hard and competing, and we didn't do that. Those guys outplayed us from start to finish."
Florida again demonstrated why it's the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference. The Gators (17-2, 6-0) suffocated the Vols with their defense and were efficient offensively. Florida's 10-point lead early in the second half developed into a 20-point advantage and eventually increased to 32.
Jarnell Stokes was the only bright spot in the debacle for Tennessee (12-7, 3-3). The junior big man scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and at one point midway through the second half he had more than half of his team's points.
While Stokes shot 6-of-9 from the field, his teammates were an ice-cold 9-of-47 shooting, and Tennessee shot a woeful 26.8 percent as a team and an even more abysmal 1-of-19 from 3-point range.
"I think they have one of the best team defenses in the nation," Stokes said following his 10th double-double of the season. "I felt like we were being trapped the entire game, and I was somewhat surprised I had 16 because they double-teamed the post and forced us to hit shots.
"Any time you go that far as far as missing that many shots, I think you put yourself in a bad position."
Just three days after scoring 34 points against Arkansas, Jordan McRae, the Vols' top scorer, managed only five points only 1-of-15 shooting
"I think they challenged every one of Jordan's shots," Martin said. "They made made him take tough, off-balanced shots, and then they were doubling Jarnell every time he got the ball around the rim. They corralled him."
The Vols didn't come close to surpassing their previous season low of 56 points scored against Texas A&M and more resembled the team that scored 36 and 38 points at Georgetown and Virginia, respectively, early last season.
Tennessee entered the game averaging nearly 75 points per game and scored 81 against Arkansas on Wednesday, but the Vols recorded their fewest points in an SEC game since scoring 35 against Auburn in 1997.
The game was tied at 15 just past the midway point of the first half when Florida ripped off a 7-0 spurt that point guard Scottie Wilbekin kickstarted with a 3-point shot.
Tennessee managed just five points and two baskets in the final 10 minutes before halftime but trailed only 26-19 at the break. Michael Frazier II hit a pair of 3s to give Florida a 34-21 lead, and center Patric Young's layup gave the hosts a 44-24 lead with about 12 minutes left to play.
The Gators threw double-teams at Stokes, mixed in some 2-3 zone and forced Tennessee to work deep into the shot clock on seemingly every possession, and the Vols appeared timid against Florida's full-court press.
"[If] they press you, you've got to get up, get it across and attack, put pressure on the defense," Martin said.
"I tell guys all the time, I say, 'If they're going to trap us and force us and speed us up, we have to make them pay,'" Stokes said. "We have to push the ball in transition. I've been begging guys to push it in transition and make guys pay for double-teaming us.
"We slowed the ball down, and we played into their hands. Playing with a 15-, 20-second shot clock isn't good for us."
In the first half, the Vols shot 28 percent and had seven field goals and seven turnovers. It got no better after halftime, and the shooting percent plummeted to nearly 20 at one point in the second half as Florida increased its lead. The Gators shot nearly 52 percent in the second half.
Tennessee can't afford to allow this blowout loss to linger with a visit from Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss and a trip to Alabama, where the Vols typically struggle, on tap this week.
"We're in for a dogfight this week," Stokes said. "We just have to to win games. We have to let this one go."
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