The Florida Gators got their chance to win their biggest game this year on Saturday, holding on for almost the entirety of their heavyweight bout against Tennessee, a top-five team that played like it in Gainesville.
But almost was the key word — and Florida only almost won.
The Vols got 17 points off the bench from Jordan Bowden and 20 points, nine rebounds, and four assists from Grant Williams — including a crucial assist on a pass out of a drive that could have been a travel that set up a back-breaking Admiral Schofield three in the final minute — and extended their lead late for a 78-67 win that will leave Florida where it has been throughout this year: On the losing end of a big game against an excellent team, searching for answers.
On this night, KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke tried to provide those answers. Allen had 18 points on nine shots, Locke 16 on 10, and both triggermen were hot early on, helping the Gators build a lead that they held for much of the first half.
But Florida followed making nine threes in the first half by making just three in the second, and Andrew Nembhard’s awful night from the field — 1-for-10 — was the unexpected compliment to Jalen Hudson’s more expected 1-for-7 no-show.
Still, Florida played brilliant defense for most of the night, and held a 63-60 lead after a Locke three, and had a shot to take the lead on another possession late.
Instead, Locke misfired on an early-clock three in semi-transition, and Williams appeared to take three steps before whipping the ball to Schofield for a basket to put Tennessee up five — and put the game out of reach more than any other part of the Vols’ closing 18-4 run did.
Tennessee is ticketed for big things this season: The SEC championship, a top NCAA Tournament seed, and a deep run, perhaps to the Final Four, are all within the Vols’ grasp.
A win over that team was within Florida’s grasp on Saturday.
The Gators just couldn’t seize it.