Florida 67, Tennessee 41: Gators feast on Vols with ferocious defense

Scott Iskowitz

Florida devoured Tennessee with relentless defense on Saturday, and marked itself as the SEC's best team.

Florida had been working on over a thousand days without a win over Tennessee. With a 67-41 stomping in the O'Connell Center on Saturday afternoon, the Gators erased that distinction — and any doubt that they're the class of the SEC.

Casey Prather had 12 points, giving him double figures in every game he's played this season, and Michael Frazier added a game-high 17 points and a pair of assists, making three of his six threes and showing surprising vision as a creator, including on an alley-oop Patric Young threw down with thunderous force.

Young had 10 points and five rebounds while contending with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee's twin towers. Stokes led the Vols with 16 points and eight rebounds, but he was practically Tennessee's entire offense: The Vols made just 15 of 56 field goals, and were even more woeful from distance, sinking one of 19 threes. Maymon had eight points, but on eight shots; Jordan McRae, harassed by Prather and Scottie Wilbekin all day, managed just five points on woeful 1-of-15 shooting — and he was Tennessee's fourth-leading scorer.

Given how Florida's defense smithereened Tennessee's offense over and over again, disrupting sets in the half court, forcing bad shots by the bushel, and pressing the Vols' ball-handlers to death, though, Michael Jordan might have looked bad against the Gators on this day. Florida allowed 0.65 points per possession — second only to the 0.53 it permitted Savannah State to score in a 76-34 rout — despite conceding 16 offensive rebounds, and allowed just 26 points in the final 29:11 of play. And from the 9:11 mark of the first half until the 2:16 mark of the second half, when Billy Donovan called off the dogs and sent in walk-ons Jacob Kurtz and Billy Donovan, Florida outscored Tennessee 52-22.

And even though that skeleton crew gave up the game's final four points to Tennessee, they still delighted another sellout O'Dome crowd, with Kurtz and Donovan trapping hulking Tennessee forward Rawane Ndiaye to elicit one peal of applause and Donovan lining up an open three that might have blown the roof off had it fallen in. That's how lopsided a matchup with arguably the No. 3 team in the SEC was for the No. 1 team in the SEC on this Saturday: Walk-ons were making plays late.

Florida now owns a 6-0 record in SEC play, and has dispatched its three SEC foes in the O'Dome by an average of 21.3 points. The Gators went on the road and beat the Arkansas squad that would hand Kentucky its only SEC loss just days later, and made Tennessee look as bad for three-quarters of a game as Kentucky made the Vols look for the final 10 minutes of a 74-66 game last Saturday. And Mississippi, the only team beyond Florida and Tennessee that could make a case as the conference's best outfit, has fattened itself on sacrificial lambs, beating just one SEC team — LSU — with any shot at an NCAA Tournament bid, and needing overtime at home to do it.

This is Florida's league again, and the Gators should stampede through it until a pair of road tests at Tennessee and Kentucky on Valentine's week — their next four games come against teams at or under .500 in conference play, and three come at home. Still, though it's tempting to dream of an unbeaten conference season and the spoils that would come with it, or project how good Florida might be if Chris Walker of Damocles is ever released from the NCAA's star chamber, there's no reason for fans to drive themselves nuts with the possibilities of what could be. If they do that, they may miss Florida growing into another superb team at a frightening rate.

These Gators feast on whatever has the misfortune of falling before them. There's plenty to of meat to savor now — and more will come.

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