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Tennessee 63, Florida 58: Gators’ rally on Rocky Top falls short

Florida played dead for 28 minutes, then rose from it. The Gators couldn’t close out their comeback this time, though.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

It looked like seemingly every game that the Florida Gators play against the Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville, at least through the first 28 minutes of play.

Then it looked like the staggering comebacks Florida has engineered more than once this year for most of the final 12 minutes.

But in the end, Tennessee’s 63-58 win over the Gators was somewhere in the middle: A thoroughly frustrating performance for Florida and a surprisingly good one for Tennessee that was succeeded by a stellar stretch for the Gators that still couldn’t secure a win.

John Fulkerson had the most to do with that for Tennessee, scoring 22 points and seemingly drawing a dozen fouls on the day. His biggest make — of the 10 he got on 15 shots — was a three-pointer with just over two minutes to play, one that pushed the Vols’ lead back to four points and two possessions after Florida’s feverish run cut it to one.

Naturally, that three — a late-clock leaner that swished home — was Fulkerson’s first make from distance in a three-year career.

But Yves Pons had eight points, four boards, two assists, and two blocks. Josiah-Jordan James contributed 10 of his 12 points as the Vols built a 32-17 halftime lead. Santiago Vescovi had 11 points on five shots and four assists. Tennessee’s five starters combined for all 63 of the Vols’ points, almost all of which were necessary on this day.

Florida’s problem for the first 28 minutes was that no one seemed capable of matching what the Vols were doing, either in tems of makes or effort. The Gators’ fatal flaw by game’s end looked more like waiting just a bit too long to wake up, or not getting enough from players other than Noah Locke (15 points), Kerry Blackshear (20 points and nine rebounds despite foul trouble), and Tre Mann (nine points off the bench).

Andrew Nembhard had just two points, though he did dish seven assists. Keyontae Johnson had six points, though he also had six boards. Half of Scottie Lewis’s four points came on a doggedly-earned putback in the final two minutes.

But Mann’s contributions, a few good minutes from Jason Jitoboh, and incredibly skittish play by Ques Glover were all Florida got from its bench, and Nembhard’s bad day got capped by a Pons block of his attempt to drive and cut the lead in half in the final seconds. The Gators committed 14 turnovers — most in the fist half — to Tennessee’s nine and did not make a field goal in the final 9:50 of the first period, allowing the Vols to go on a 16-3 run into intermission.

And though Mann was excellent as a driver and creator for himself and a pesky defender on this day after being thrust into a larger-than-usual supporting role by Glover’s ineffective cameo, he still didn’t score in the final 6:46 of play after chipping in seven straight points for the Gators in the midst of an extended 26-7 run.

He had a shot to match Fulkerson’s three with just more than a minute to play; it would have given Florida a 59-58 lead.

And it rolled in and out.

Increasingly, it seems like it will take a superhuman effort from Florida to break through at Thompson-Boling Arena, a place where the Gators have won once since 2011, and only with arguably the best regular-season team in Florida history.

Today, the Gators didn’t put that effort forth — not for long enough, anyway. It’ll be a long wait until they get another chance to capture this particular fortress.