The Tennessee Volunteers came to Florida with a chance to all but eliminate their rivals from NCAA Tournament contention.
The Gators had other ideas.
A desperate Florida team started and ended Wednesday night’s meeting with its intensity at a season high, and used that verve to knock off the AP Poll’s No. 2 team, 67-54.
The Gators’ first half began with a bang, as turnovers and hot shooting fueled a 17-4 start — with a 15-0 run as part of it. Eight Florida players scored in the first half, with Will Richard’s two threes and seven points leading the way.
And Florida also fended off Tennessee’s attempt to reclaim the game after its slow start, closing the half with five unanswered points after the Vols got within a single point and entering halftime up 27-21.
But Tennessee would answer the bell in a heavyweight bout of a contest in the second half, revving up its offense — with the aid of some fortuitous whistles — to take its first lead since 4-2 midway through the second half. The Vols would eventually get to a 44-38 edge with 10:24 remaining after Santiago Vescovi hit all three free throws following a shooting foul on Kowacie Reeves.
Reeves worked over a physical screen and contested Vescovi’s shot cleanly up top — but collided with Vescovi’s extended leg in mid-air, which did not turn into a foul on the Tennessee guard even after replay review.
Frustrated by that and a half that had started slipping away, Florida could have folded.
Instead, the Gators flexed.
A 17-3 run over the next five minutes powered by seven points and an assist on a three from Colin Castleton — who got a difficult shot off glass to go with spin that he gestured about afterward — gave the Gators control of the game. Grit and resolve over the next three minutes got Florida to the final segment up by the same six-point margin that Tennessee had held.
And a final combination in that closing four minutes — an 8-5 win despite four missed free throws, and featuring more magic from Castleton and a brilliant press break resulting in a Richard layup — put the Vols down for the count.
Castleton led all scorers with 20 points, and added nine rebounds, three assists, and a block on a typically exceptional night. And Florida shot a respectable 7-for-20 from three against the nation’s best three-point defense — which came in allowing opponents to shoot just 22 percent from deep — with all of Richard (nine points, seven boards), Myreon Jones (nine points, four assists, three rebounds, two blocks), and Kyle Lofton (nine points, four assists, four rebounds, two steals) connecting twice.
But if Florida-Tennessee was supposed to be a defensive battle — between two top-10 defenses, from a per-possession standpoint — then it was the Gators’ tenacious D that picked their destiny.
The Vols shot just 28 percent from the field and 20 percent from three, with Florida’s guards gluing themselves to Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler to make them earn their combined 26 points on 31 shots. Four Vols — Vescovi, Zeigler, Josiah Jordan-James, and Olivier Nkamhoua — combined to take a staggering 55 shots on the evening, with Tennessee’s ferocious effort on the glass netting 18 offensive rebounds and 20 more shots than Florida took.
That quartet combined to make just 14 of those 55 tries. And had Vescovi not twice gotten three-shot trips to the line on questionable calls — and made all six of the resulting free throws — Florida might have allowed fewer than 50 points and won by 15 over a team that walked into the O’Connell Center as the nation’s best in KenPom.
For the Gators — who now have program-best home wins over the nation’s No. 2 team in the AP Poll in consecutive years, having similarly smothered Auburn a year ago — this is a signature triumph, and a first huge win under Todd Golden.
Even if Florida will need to capitalize on the boost to its NCAA Tournament profile earned tonight with several other wins if it is to make this year’s field, this was the sort of proof of concept that the Golden era had previously lacked, with the Gators’ excellent defense throttling a good team at the same time their offense showed enough life to beat such an outfit after a slew of offensive no-shows wasted stellar defensive efforts.
But if Florida could do this on this night — against a team that would be considered a Final Four favorite if not for the historic struggles of both the program and Rick Barnes to make deep runs in March — then Florida could, it stands to reason, do this on other nights.
And that really would be a golden dawn.