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Tennessee 78, Florida 66: Vols oust Gators from SEC Tournament with strong defense

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Not until Tre Mann got hot did the Gators get untracked in Nashville — and by then it was too late.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Florida vs Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators ruled the first 60 minutes of the three games they played against the Tennessee Volunteers in men’s basketball this season.

Tennessee, it turns out, had dibs on the other 60.

The Vols led almost wire-to-wire and had answers for every Florida push — even a scalding-hot stretch from Tre Mann — on Friday, holding the Gators at arm’s length for the majority of a 78-66 victory in an SEC Tournament quarterfinal.

Yves Pons dominated on both ends, putting up 11 points and eight boards and adding a stunning nine blocks, and anchored a defensive effort that held Florida to 22 points at halftime and just 45 with 6:35 remaining, when Mann hit his first of four threes in a span of four minutes.

Three other Vols starters joined Pons in double figures, with Santiago Vescovi leading the way with 14 points, and John Fulkerson assuredly would have rounded out the starting lineup’s contributions had he been able to finish the game instead of being injured as Omar Payne swung an elbow that connected above the neck and floored him early in the second half.

Payne was assessed a flagrant-2 foul and ejected for the elbow, and may yet face further discipline for the play, roundly condemned as dirty by the viewing audience. Fulkerson did not return to the game.

But Payne’s shot was about the only one Florida connected on for most of the game. The Gators shot 30 percent in the first half and struggled mightily to score on the long, strong Vols, who blanketed Mann in the pick and roll and collapsed repeatedly to wall off the paint. Colin Castleton struggled to a four-point night on 2-for-7 shooting, and while Tyree Appleby scored 14 points, seven of those came on a circus shot deep in a corner and a four-point play in the waning moments; more of his day was spent driving into the Tennessee forest and being summarily swatted by the Ents within it.

Mann, though, continued a late-season jump to his best form as a Gator by rebounding from an 0-for-6 start to score a career-high 30 points — 28 of which came as the lion’s share of Florida’s 44 points in the second half. Over the final 10 minutes of play, he scored 19 of Florida’s final 25 points, in one spate scoring 12 straight points in 2:36 of game clock by hitting the last three of his five triples on the day, each seemingly more cold-blooded than the last.

That none of that outburst got Florida within even 10 points of the Vols speaks to Tennessee’s quality on the day — this was, to Florida’s chagrin, the team that roared back from a deficit in Knoxville last Sunday, and a version of the Vols that could play its way to the Final Four with the right breaks in the NCAA Tournament.

But that Mann refused to throw in the towel on a day when Florida got mopped up is a reminder that he is unlikely to let the Gators go quietly next week.