Florida held a 31-17 lead over Tennessee late in the first half of Sunday’s winner-takes-a-day-off-at-the-SEC-Tournament clash in Knoxville.
Then Tennessee resolved to take the game — and the Gators were all but powerless to stop them, going down 65-54 in a dispiriting loss that will instill little confidence in their chances of proceeding far in Nashville.
Tyree Appleby led the Gators, who played without Tre Mann — left at Florida’s hotel after suffering a migraine — in one of their most important games of the season. Appleby’s 19 points were one of just two double-digit tallies the Gators notched, however, and his three assists were symptomatic of Florida’s struggles to incorporate its entire roster in its offense against Tennessee’s swarming defense.
The Volunteers did most of their best work just before and after halftime, with an 8-0 run into the break that sliced Florida’s lead to just five points and turned into a 30-10 stretch spanning both periods featuring scoring punch from Victor Bailey (14 points off the bench) and a large share of the 18 offensive rebounds they would corral on the day.
Those offensive boards and 16 forced turnovers helped the Vols survive shooting just 44 percent from the field and making just three of 21 threes — but so did Florida cooling off after its hot start, with the Gators ultimately shooting 42 percent from the field, making three of 13 threes, and going just 11-for-18 from the line. Colin Castleton joined Appleby in double figures with 11 points, but Florida’s other three starters — Anthony Duruji, Scottie Lewis, and Noah Locke — had just 19 combined points on 22 shots, and Ques Glover, pressed into service by Mann’s absence, coughed up five turnovers in limited minutes.
The loss consigns Florida to the No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament, and what could be a rematch with Tennessee in a quarterfinal game — if, that is, they survive a second-round matchup. It also ends a miserable week of results, as the Gators’ fight to recover from an early hole against Missouri ultimately went for naught thanks to a buzzer-beating layup.
For the Gators to get the bitter taste of this finish to their regular season out of their mouths, they’ll need to get Mann back — and to renew the intensity that has allowed them to persevere through unrelenting adversity this season.