In a game they controlled from the opening tip, there was a brief window in which it appeared as if the Florida Gators were losing their grip.
After building on a lead that reached 11 points at halftime by going up 20 in the second half, Florida went five straight offensive possessions without scoring, turning the ball over three times, and allowed Tennessee to close to within 12 points.
But E.J. Anosike missed a layup that would’ve cut the lead to 10, and couldn’t corral a rebound that caromed around the basket — and then Florida found the switch for its afterburners, with a Tre Mann baseline runner and two Tyree Appleby steals that yielded buckets producing a 7-0 run that put the Vols away for good and punctuated what would turn into a resounding 75-49 triumph for Florida.
On a night when they were seriously short-handed, the Gators stood tall on the defensive end and limited Tennessee to 29 percent shooting from the field and a mere three threes. Of 18 Tennessee turnovers, 11 went down as Florida steals, and Omar Payne had five of Florida’s seven blocks.
The effort limited the Vols to the third-fewest points they have scored under Rick Barnes, and a season low by two touchdowns — and two points after.
And Florida’s offense turned to unusual contributors for its scoring. The three-guard backcourt of Noah Locke, Appleby, and Mann combined for 39 points, but Ques Glover chipping in 10 points off the bench, little-used Niels Lane and Osayi Osifo combining for 10 points of their own each, and Payne having nine points in a rare start did almost as much to buoy the Gators.
But without Scottie Lewis and Colin Castleton on top of the extended absence of Keyontae Johnson, Florida’s excellence was as well-rounded as it was stunning. The 10 steals helped Florida move the ball in transition to get some of its 15 assists; a dogged approach to rebounding — Payne had nine, every starter had at least three, and Osifo and Lane combined for nine off the bench — kept Tennessee from gathering even more than the 17 offensive rebounds it got, and fantastic second-shot defense kept the Vols’ many extra trips from meaningfully hurting the Gators.
The only Tennessee starter to reach double figures was John Fulkerson, who also had five boards and four assists as the lone true bright spot for the Vols. And Tennessee wasn’t even good on the shots with no defense, making just 12 of 25 free throw attempts — a number that suspiciously dwarfed the aggressive Gators’ mere 11.
Truly, given context and opponent, this was one of the best wins of Mike White’s tenure at Florida — and a blueprint, if these Gators want to refer to it, for future competitiveness even without some of their star performers.
For one night, everything’s all right in Gator Nation.