Basketball is all about matchups, as unranked Tennessee and eighth-ranked Florida proved again Saturday at the O'Connell Center.
Five weeks after prevailing 67-56 Jan. 7 in Knoxville, the Vols completed a season sweep of the Gators in Gainesville by dominating from start to finish. The final score, 75-70, was seriously misleading. Tennessee was up by 17 points in the first half and by 12 inside the final minute. The Gators nailed four 3-pointers in the last 33 seconds, including one at the buzzer, to make the final margin appear respectable.
The loss was Florida's first at home this season after winning its first 13. The win was Tennessee's first on the road after losing its first seven.
Speaking on the post-game show, Vol head coach Cuonzo Martin called it "a great win for our guys. It was fun to watch 'em play from start to finish."
Sophomore point guard Trae Golden drained 9 of 11 foul shots en route to leading Tennessee with 17 points and 7 assists. Jeronne Maymon contributed a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Skylar McBee added 13 points and Jordan McRae 12.
Tennessee, now 13-12 overall and 5-5 in SEC play, is 9-0 this season when McBee produces 10 points or more. Freshman Jarnell Stokes, who missed Wednesday's game against South Carolina due to a sprained wrist, played 11 minutes in relief versus Florida.
After shooting just 36.4 percent from the field and 29.8 percent from 3-point range in four previous SEC road games, the Vols found the range this time. They shot 48.0 percent (24 of 50) from the field and 45.6 percent (5 of 11) from 3 on Saturday.
The Big Orange committed just 13 turnovers, a vast improvement over earlier road games at Vanderbilt (25) and Georgia (20).
"Thirteen turnovers against that press was a great job," Martin said. "If you play defense, don't turn the ball over and you keep them off the glass, you've got a chance to win ball games."
The Vols did all three on Saturday. Their defense limited the Gators to 42.5 percent shooting (20 of 47) from the field. Florida finished with 15 turnovers and just nine assists, seven below its SEC-leading average of 16 assists per game.
Kenny Boynton and freshman Bradley Beal scored 16 points each to lead the Gators, now 19-6 overall and 7-3 in league play.
Down 9-10 six minutes into the game, Tennessee went on a 15-2 run to grab a 24-12 lead. McRae sparked the spurt with two 3-pointers, a dunk and a free throw.
McBee hit a 3 from the right corner as the bulge swelled to 15 points (33-18) with 5:03 left to the break and Maymon sank a layup that bumped the lead to 17 points (39-22) with 2:27 remaining in the half.
Florida closed a 41-30 halftime deficit to nine (50-41) with 16:00 left but Golden scored six points in a 12-5 spurt that pushed the margin to 16 at 62-46 with 6:01 remaining.
"I think the last two games Trae is playing the way we need him to play in order for us to be successful," Martin said. "I've said it time and time again: I don't want Trae just to be good; I want him to be great."
After being benched against Georgia three games ago, Golden has played exceptionally well in the two outings since reclaiming his first-team role.
"There's a lot of things required for him to be successful and our team to be successful," Martin said, "but the last two games he's done a really good job of leading our team, directing traffic and talking to the guys on both ends of the floor. If he can do that, then we're a really good team because you need your point guard to be vocal at all times."
Tennessee won the backboard battle 36-30 by grabbing 12 offensive rebounds.
"We did a great job of controlling the glass," Martin said. "That's been one of the (good) things about our defense -- boxing out and getting rebounds, defending at a high level."
Although several Vols have improved their defense individually, the most dramatic progress is in Tennessee's team defense.
"In the weakside defense, guys are where they're supposed to be," Martin said. "Earlier in the year that wasn't there but through constantly rotating and practicing, our guys have gotten better."
With a .500 record in SEC play and a 13-12 overall mark, Tennessee is back in the hunt for a post-season tournament bid. Now the Vols have to keep their momentum building.
"They're getting there, without a doubt," Martin said. "Are we where we need to be right now? No, but we're getting there. I think it's just (a matter of getting) a consistent effort.
"We're defending well. Once we get to a point where they're doing it because it's a way of life and they understand it's what we need to be successful on a consistent basis, then I think we'll be a great defensive team."