The 12th-ranked Gators drained a mind-boggling 82.4 percent of their second-half field goals (14 of 17) and outscored the Big Orange 56-40 after intermission en route to an 85-74 quarterfinal win at The Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
"Florida's offense the second half was absolutely on fire," Pearl said, "and our defense was non-existent. We weren't effective communicating. We weren't dictating where Florida could go. It was very much like the start of the game. When you allow a team to score 56 points in the second half, shoot the way they shot and send them to the foul line as many times as we did (33 times in the second half, 37 total) you've got no chance to win.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed."
Florida, now 25-6, advances to Saturday's tourney semifinals. Tennessee, now 19-14, will wait until Sunday to see who and when it will be playing in the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman Tobias Harris was brilliant in defeat, hitting 10 of 17 shots and matching his career high with 25 points. He also grabbed 8 rebounds. First-team All-SEC guard Scotty Hopson added 19 points but committed 7 turnovers. Skylar McBee hit 4 of 6 shots and scored 10 points off the Vol bench. Fellow reserve Brian Williams contributed 6 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Pearl juggled his lineup, benching junior wing Cameron Tatum in favor of senior Josh Bone. Tatum had made just 8 of 38 shots over the previous six games, including a 1-for-8 performance vs. Arkansas on Thursday night. Pearl hoped the move would fire up Tatum but it didn't. He missed his only shot and played just 7 minutes. Bone, meanwhile, made 1 of 4 shots and finished with 3 points, 2 assists and 2 steals in 23 minutes.
The Vols, known for their inconsistent effort, came out sleepwalking and fell behind 25-13 midway through the first half.
Pearl surrounded Harris with second-teamers at this point, however, and the patchwork lineup outscored Florida 21-4 the rest of the half to take a 34-29 lead to the break. Harris scored 12 points during the explosion and went to the half with 18.
Pearl described his team's lethargic start as "disappointing," then added: "But I thought the guys came off the bench and we had an amazing rally.... There were a lot of guys that came off the bench and just brought great energy, played great defense, and going to the half it was very, very encouraging."
Typical of Tennessee's season, however, the good times didn't last. Florida outscored the Vols 7-2 to open the second half, tying the score at 36. It was deadlocked at 50 eight minutes in, when a technical foul seemed to turn the game's momentum.
Florida's Vernon Macklin scored on an 8-foot hook shot for a 52-50 Gators lead. Steven Pearl lost the ball on Tennessee's next possession, and Bruce Pearl was hit with a technical foul. Florida made both free technical free throws, then added another off the ensuing possession to go up 55-50. Macklin scored on a breakaway moments later as the lead swelled to 57-50 with 9:59 remaining.
The Vols never drew closer than five points thereafter, thanks mainly to Kenny Boynton. The Gator guard scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half as Florida pulled away down the stretch. Erving Walker added 17 points and Macklin 15.
Tennessee won the backboards 34-30 and shot a so-so 43.3 percent from the field but a mere 21.1 percent (4 of 19) from 3. McBee was 2 of 4 beyond the arc, the rest of the team 2 of 15, matching Thursday night's total vs. Arkansas.
Florida's red-hot second half enabled the Gators to shoot 58.7 percent for the game. That was the season-high by a Vol foe, eclipsing the 57.1 percent College of Charleston hung on Tennessee back in Game 13 on Dec. 31.
"Florida shot the basketball tremendously," Hopson said. "We didn't slide our feet. We sent them to the foul line, they stepped up and made their free throws and they played great down the stretch."