Playing against another one of the SEC’s top teams on the road without their best player and a key reserve — or, well, mostly, in the latter case — the Florida Gators found themselves in an unusual position against Tennessee for much of their Wednesday night meeting: The lead.
But despite controlling the game in the first half after responding to a hot start by the Volunteers and holding a double-digit lead early in the second half, a depleted Florida team could not get the win it fought valiantly for, falling 78-71 in Knoxville.
Florida’s early success had a lot to do with hot shooting and defensive pressure. While Kowacie Reeves made a three on the game’s first possession, Tennessee answered with a 10-5 stretch — and then Florida got two threes from Tyree Appleby, one from beyond 30 feet, and two more from Brandon McKissic in its own 15-0 run to get to a 23-10 advantage.
But offsetting technical fouls on Appleby and Santiago Vescovi stunted that Florida run, and Tennessee uncorked its own 11-0 spurt before another Reeves three pushed the Gators lead back to five points — and, maybe more importantly, helped set the tone for a night that would be partially defined by poor officiating.
The other defining moment of the first half came on a failed putback by Jason Jitoboh with just over two minutes to play. While Jitoboh was leaping and reaching for a ball, Tennessee’s Uros Plavisic inadvertently pawed his face in search of the same rebound, apparently poking Jitoboh in the eye rather severely. Jitoboh would remain on the floor as Tennessee attempted to begin its next possession, with the eventual whistle to stop play drawing boos from the partisan crowd, but he exited the game after the injury, and didn’t even return to Florida’s bench in the second half.
Still, the 8-0 run that had put Florida up 12 when Jitoboh went out helped the Gators go into the half up 42-34, even if Vescovi’s late-half heroics — a pair of threes while playing with two fouls — kept the Vols in shouting distance.
In the second half, those echoes got nearer and nearer. Tennessee whittled the lead to three points by the first TV timeout, and would never trail by more than three points thereafter, with Florida clinging to a slim lead or fighting to keep the Vols from building anything but one for much of the rest of the night.
While Anthony Duruji (16 points, six rebounds, but six turnovers) did plenty of work after intermission and little-used Tuongthach Gatkek worked tirelessly to hold the fort as Florida’s lone big for much of the period, Vols guards Zakai Zeigler and Kennedy Chandler (a combined 28 points) found ways to get into the lane and feed John Fulkerson (nine points off the bench), and Tennessee kept its hot shooting going, finishing with 11 made threes on 24 attempts.
Florida couldn’t match that shooting — it made 10 threes, but needed 33 attempts for them — and couldn’t consistently keep Tennessee from creating shots and free throws. The Vols’ 10 offensive rebounds were not outrageous, and Florida actually outscored Tennessee 28-20 in the paint, but the Vols shot 18 free throws to the often perimeter-bound Gators’ nine, making 17 of them.
And a couple of instances in the second half appeared to give Tennessee a greater disparity on the free throw line than it deserved. With Florida up three and just more than 10 minutes to play, McKissic was leapt into by Josiah-Jordan James, only to hear no whistle, sending Mike White into a rage; with just under a minute to go, Phlandrous Fleming appeared to grab a key defensive rebound and get fouled in a situation that would have sent him to the line for a one-and-one opportunity with a chance to cut Tennessee’s lead to two.
But that play — which came at the end of a possession that Tennessee was lucky to keep, with Florida appearing to bat the ball away for a steal only to have that ruled a deflection out of bounds seconds earlier — would be reviewed after a Tennessee timeout. And after the review, the foul Fleming drew was wiped out and replaced by a dubious hook-and-hold foul assessed on Duruji, leading to two free throws that Chandler sank to extend Tennessee’s lead to six.
Even that would not fully kill the Gators: Appleby had another leaning corner three to throw in, and Florida missed a pair of shots with a chance to slice the lead to a single possession later in that final minute.
But on a night when chippiness from both teams was clear on the broadcast, and physical plays went uncalled on both sides, a swallowed whistle cost Florida three free throws — and a foul assessed after a play resulted in a four-attempt edge for Tennessee.
And, yes, Florida could probably still have won this game, despite its depletion and the referees’ decisions. Had more of their threes fallen, or if they had been slightly more careful with the ball — Duruji and Appleby combined for 11 turnovers, Appleby’s five marring an otherwise superb 16-point, seven-assist night — the Gators could have threatened 80 points; if Tennessee, fairly mediocre at perimeter shooting this season, had regressed on its threes like Florida did, that could well have swung the outcome.
Hell, if Felder had been healthy enough to give more than the three unremarkable minutes he was forced to play to spell a winded Gatkek, maybe that’s all Florida would have needed to stage a stunning upset on Rocky Top.
But the bottom line is that Florida needed more to get a win than it had on offer.
And though the road gets slightly easier over the next two weeks, with the Gators returning home to play Oklahoma State in the conclusion of their sprint through five games in 11 days and facing some of the purportedly lesser squads of the SEC — Missouri, Ole Miss, and Georgia — after that, the Gators still probably need to do more than just win the games they’re supposed to win to make a run at the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Without Colin Castleton, and with the statuses of other players up in the air, exactly how that might come to pass is truly hard to predict.