The Gators certainly think the Volunteers are deserving.
“They’re an NCAA tournament team,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, relieved after his team rallied from 10 points down for a 56-49 victory Saturday in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament. “No question about it.”
Patric Young scored 16 points and Scottie Wilbekin added 14, but Florida’s victory had nothing to do with what happened at the offensive end. It was all about what Tennessee faced when it had the ball after halftime.
The Volunteers (21-12) made only 5-of-20 shots with 11 turnovers, and things really got grim down the stretch as they stifled time and time again — making just one of their last 11 attempts from the field, while turning it over five times.
Everywhere they turned, it seemed like a Florida player was waiting, ready to take a swipe at the ball.
“We didn’t really switch anything up,” Wilbekin said. “We just tried to go into an extra gear.”
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin gave all the credit to the Gators (31-2), who extended their school-record winning streak to 25 in a row after trailing 35-28 at halftime.
“I’ve seen a lot of teams. I’ve watched a lot of teams from afar,” Martin said. “They’re one of the best defensive teams in the country.”
The Vols had a chance to post their most impressive win of the season. Now, their postseason fate rests in the hands of the NCAA selection committee, though the players are confident of their chances based on one of the nation’s toughest schedules and an RPI in the low 40s.
“I feel like the statement was already made before coming into this game,” Jarnell Stokes said.
Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 15 points, while Stokes had 13 points and seven rebounds.
“They’re a tough, strong team,” Wilbekin said. “They don’t back down from anybody.”
The Gators, improving to 20-0 against SEC opponents, advanced to face Kentucky in the championship game Sunday. The Wildcats defeated Georgia 70-58.
The final minutes were marred by a number of questionable calls, including a technical on Tennessee’s Jeronne Maymon for disputing that he threw a shoulder. It was the fifth foul on Maymon, knocking him out of the game with more than 4 1-2 minutes remaining after he scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
Then with just over a minute left, there was a long break while the officials went to the replay to rule on a potential flagrant foul against Wilbekin, even though it wasn’t even clear if he touched a Tennessee player while swinging his arms high.
“I think my elbow nicked his chin a little bit,” Wilbekin said with a slight grin. “He did a good job of selling it.”
It didn’t matter at the end. The Gators defeated Tennessee for the third time this season, each one following the same plot line. The Vols held their own in the first half, only to get dominated by Florida in the second.
The cumulative second-half score in the three games was Florida 103, Tennessee 60 — including a 28-14 edge on Saturday.
In the first half, at least, Tennessee certainly looked more than worthy of a spot in the 68-team NCAA field. The Vols were the first team to lead Florida by double digits since the first of its two losses, at Wisconsin on Nov. 12.
Wilbekin cut the deficit to seven at halftime with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but Florida still went to the locker room facing its second-biggest deficit of the season at the midway point. Not that the Gators were ruffled by being in that position — it was the eighth time they had trailed at the break, and they’ve now come back to win six in a row.
“I told the guys at halftime, ‘We’ve been in this situation before,’” Wilbekin said. “We know what it takes to win in the second half.”
Tennessee should know. The Vols stayed right with Florida in the first half of both regular-season meetings, only to get blown out 67-41 in Gainesville and fall 67-58 in Knoxville.
Wilbekin, Florida’s senior leader, didn’t have his usual stellar game though he did go 3 of 7 from 3-point range. He was definitely off in the first half, throwing up an airball on an off-balance shot from the baseline and barely grazing the rim with another attempt.
But his defense was there all the way.