Top-ranked Florida played tremendous second-half defense on Saturday, causing the Vols to record almost as many turnovers (11) as points (14) and enabling the Gators to turn a 28-35 halftime deficit into a 56-49 victory in semifinal play at The Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Sealing Tennessee's doom was technical fouls on Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton in the waning minutes.
With the score tied at 45 and 4:39 remaining, official Pat Adams whistled Maymon for bumping Florida's Patric Young. Maymon reacted so vehemently that Adams tacked on a technical foul. The personal foul was Maymon's fourth and the "T" his fifth, sending one of the Vols' best players to the bench for the remainder of the game. Michael Frazier hit both technical free throws and Young made both regular free throws, turning the 45-45 tie into a 49-45 Gator lead.
"I wasn't really told anything Maymon did," Cuonzo Martin said. "They called a technical foul. I watched his body language. He didn't use any curse words, swear. Whatever you want to call it, he didn't do any of that. Maybe his tone or maybe his approach and his body language caused him to get the technical. But I watched his lips closely, so there wasn't anything derogatory that was said."
Tennessee, wearing its "smokey gray" uniforms for the first time, actually weathered that storm. A 3-pointer by Jordan McRae eventually tied the score at 49 with 2:45 left but the Big Orange was called for another costly technical with 1:21 remaining and Florida up 51-49. Barton was whistled for a flagrant foul after grabbing the Gators' Casey Prather around the waist to prevent a breakaway layup. Prather made both foul shots for a 53-49 lead. Florida failed to exploit the ensuing possession but it didn't matter; the Vols would not score again.
Young scored 16 points and Scottie Wilbekin 14 to pace the Gators, who have won 25 games in a row.
Martin was encouraged by the Vols' effort, if not the outcome.
"We really competed at a high level," he said. "Both teams defended well. It just came down the stretch to making plays. And we had a couple of costly technical fouls."
Florida improves to 31-2 overall. The Gators stand 20-0 against SEC competition heading into Sunday's tournament title game. Tennessee slips to 21-12 after seeing a season-best five-game winning streak snapped.
The Vols should get an NCAA Tournament bid when they are extended on Sunday, especially after giving America's top-ranked team a severe scare. Building a 10-point lead late in the first half surely made a statement about Tennessee's worthiness to the selection committee.
"I feel like the statement was already made before coming into this game," said Vol junior Jarnell Stokes, who recorded 13 points and 7 rebounds. "I really wanted this game. I feel like we were right there (on the verge of winning). We just didn't make plays down the stretch like we usually do."
Stokes carefully deflected questions about the technical-foul calls late in the game.
"I don't want to complain," he said. "I feel like Florida made some big plays. They have a great team – No. 1 in the country. There were some calls I didn't like but that's a part of it. I'm just a player; I'll let the referees do their job."
McRae, who led the Vols with 15 points, also chose to make no excuses. Instead, he credited the Gators for executing down the stretch.
Tennessee dominated the first 20 minutes. After falling behind 5-9, the Vols made a 16-5 run to build a 21-14 lead midway through the half. Except for a 3-pointer by Derek Reese, virtually every Tennessee point had been scored in the paint.
Two foul shots by Maymon bumped the lead to 10 points (33-23) with 2:06 left to the break. The Vols still led by 10 (35-25) until Wilbekin bagged a 3-pointer one second shy of intermission, narrowing the gap to 33-28.
Florida ratcheted up the defensive pressure the first five minutes of the second half, and the Vols wilted, going 1 of 3 from the field with five turnovers. A driving layup by Kasey Hill capped a 10-2 spurt that gave Florida a 38-37 lead with 14:45 to play. A putback by Stokes pushed Tennessee ahead 43-38 with 12:15 remaining but the Vols would not make another basket until McRae hit his 3-pointer with 2:45 left … a span of 9½ minutes. That trey proved to be Tennessee's only basket of the final 12 minutes.
After shooting 53.8 percent (14 of 26) in the first half, the Big Orange shot just 25 percent (5 of 20) after the break. With Florida crowding the paint, the Vols were forced to score from long range. They failed, going 2 of 13 from 3 on the day.
"I think we had some shots that we normally make," McRae said. "Tonight they didn't fall but I don't think they (Gators) did anything different than they did in the first half."
The Gators may not have defended any differently in the second half but they certainly defended better. Martin thought they deserved a lot of credit for the comeback victory.
"They have a group of guys that understand their roles and they want to be successful as a team," Tennessee's coach said. "In my opinion, they're the best defensive team in the country. I've seen a lot of teams but they're probably the best in the country because they close the gaps, and the bigs do a great job defending. They're physical, they play without fouling, they pressure you."
Despite the loss, the Vol coach was very proud of his team's performance.
"We feel like we came into the game ready to win the game … just came up short," Martin said. "This was the two best defensive teams in the league, and they made the plays down the stretch. We talked about it before the game: The team that makes the plays down the stretch (will win).
"Unfortunately for us, some costly technical fouls probably shifted the game."
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Antonio Barton video interview
Jeronne Maymon video interview
Josh Richardson video interview
Jarnell Stokes video interview
See a slideshow of the action from the Georgia Dome hardwood via InsideTennessee's Danny Parker below (click to enlarge):