Tennessee needed to hit its shots and feed off its raucous crowd to have a chance at revenge against the third-ranked team in the country. It did.
The Vols also needed the breaks to go their way come crunch time. They did not.
The No. 3 Florida Gators outlasted the Tennessee Volunteers, 67-58, on Tuesday night inside Thompson-Boling Arena, staying unbeaten in SEC play and snatching what would have been a season-changing win from the desperate Vols.
Jarnell Stokes led the Vols with 20 points and 11 rebounds on 7-for-11 shooting, and Jordan McRae added 17 points. But that wasn’t enough to sway a back-and-forth contest in the home team’s favor.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Stokes said after the loss. “We felt like we were right there. We made plays on the defensive end but came up short on the offensive end.”
The Vols held the Gators to 36 percent (21-for-58) shooting on the night, much lower than UT’s 46 percent clip (22-for-48) against the SEC’s top defense.
But Cuonzo Martin’s Vols could not hold onto the ball in opportune moments, turning it over 15 times — which Florida turned into 19 points — and eventually sealing UT’s fate.
“We felt like we were ready to win the game,” Martin said. “We did everything to win the game, but you have to take care of the basketball. Against a good team, you can’t make those types of mistakes.”
The Gators took control of a seesawing game quickly after the break and maintained it for virtually the entire second half as the Vols’ early shooting success went awry.
But UT still mounted its comeback, going on an 8-2 run to make it 55-54 Florida with just five minutes left. After forcing another stop on defense and getting the ball with a chance to take back the lead, UT senior forward Jeronne Maymon notched his eighth and final turnover, giving it right back to Florida.
Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin (21 points) and Michael Frazier III (11 points) then canned 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to begin the mass exodus of Vol fans.
Maymon’s eight turnovers turned into a major liability that played a part in UT’s loss, but Martin wasn’t regretful over leaving his senior leader in the game despite his struggles.
“I didn’t think about taking him out because he was playing hard,” Martin said. “He did a tremendous job of battling and competing. It was unfortunate, but he played extremely hard.”
Thompson-Boling Arena’s crowd was in rare form Tuesday night, roaring at every big Vol basket and helping UT to survive an early 10-2 Florida lead as the Gators came out chomping.
But after that, the Vols went on a 30-16 run led by suffocating defense and a first-half hot shooting streak that put UT up 34-33 at halftime while shooting 63 percent from the field.
A different shooting team came out in the second half. McRae missed nine of his last 11 attempts to finish 6-of-16, and the Vols shot 29.2 percent as a team in the second half, which made Florida’s shooting struggles irrelevant.
Gators head coach Billy Donovan, who improved to 18-18 all time against Tennessee, admitted his team adjusted to slow down McRae, but also that he simply didn’t make as many tough shots.
“I thought a lot of shots they made in the first half, those didn’t go down in the second half,” Donovan said. “We made it a lot more difficult for McRae. Some of the shots he hit in the first half just didn’t go down.”
In an up-and-down season such as Tennessee’s, any loss is tough to swallow. But after going toe-to-toe with the nation’s third-ranked team and nearly coming out winners,
Stokes and company couldn't help but look back.
“We came out and played with fire,” Stokes said. “They hit shots down the stretch and they rebounded down the stretch. "As far as being up and down, you know, losses like this are hard because we were right there.”