KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee basketball Volunteers spent most of Tuesday night fighting an uphill battle. And every time they got close to pulling themselves over the top, a Florida Gator was standing there to nudge them back down before delivering a decisive final shove.
Florida got timely second-half baskets and a game-saving block at the rim by Alex Tyus in the final seconds of regulation before scoring the first six points of overtime and earning an 81-75 Southeastern Conference win in front of 19,846 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Florida made plays in overtime," UT associate head coach Tony Jones said after his second game - and loss - filling in for suspended head coach Bruce Pearl. "They were projected to win the Southeastern Conference outright, and we had an opportunity to beat them. We let it slip away."
Cameron Tatum led the Vols (10-6, 0-2) with 21 points on 7-of-11 shooting with four 3-pointers, four rebounds, four assists and five turnovers. He scored 11 points in the first half after not scoring against Arkansas on Saturday.
Scotty Hopson scored 20 points but shot just 6-of-15 for the Vols, and freshman Tobias Harris had his third double-double in a row, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Florida's Kenny Boynton scored eight of his 17 points in overtime, including one 3-pointer to open the scoring and another dagger with less than a minute remaining.
"I give our guys credit," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "They hung in there and made some plays, which I thought showed some toughness."
Winning in Knoxville for the first time since 2005, Florida (13-3, 2-0) had five double-figure scorers and shot 52 percent, exploiting UT's defense in a variety of ways. Chandler Parsons was 4-of-5 on 3-pointers for his 16 points, and Erving Walker found driving room to the basket on his way to 15.
When Florida wasn't attacking with its guards off screens or drives, it went down low to Tyus (18 points, seven rebounds) and Vernon Macklin (11 points).
"Our emphasis was to keep it out of the bigs' hands," Jones said. "It's twofold: Our guards have to keep pressure on the basketball and not allow those easy post entry [passes]. Our bigs didn't do a good job. Teams coming in shooting 50 percent in halves is not a formula to win basketball games."
The Gators led by eight points in the second half and seemingly had an answer every time UT appeared to be grabbing momentum with big shot after big shot.
"You don't panic and you understand that good teams are going to do that," Tatum said. "You just come back and you counter that [with] an inside shot, a foul or a inside-out."
Trae Golden's steal and layup finally tied the game at 64 with 3:54 remaining, setting up the finish.
After Tyus missed the front end of a one-and-one with 42 seconds left, Hopson came off a screen on the left wing and threaded a pass to Brian Williams on the low block. Williams turned to the basket and floated a close-range shot, but Tyus got a piece of it to force the extra frame.
"We called a play called 12-Up trying to get Scotty the basketball and for him to make a play," Jones said. "We did a good job of catching it, sweeping it and making a play. He got the ball to Brian right there close to the basket.
"One of those guys made an unbelievable defensive play."
Said Hopson: "I made a great play to Brian, and the guy on the defensive end made a great block."
The Vols' offense stalled in overtime, when their only field goal came on John Fields' dunk with Florida up 77-70 with 23 seconds left.
"I think we'e holding the ball too much," Jones said. "Sometimes we're calling plays and it's taking them a second or two to grasp them, and it seems like there's some indecision there."
Said Tatum: "Execution. We didn't execute toward the end defensively or offensively, and [the Gators] did. They made tough shots at the end down the stretch."
"That's partly me and the veterans' faults," Hopson said. "To be able to close out games, that's our job."