GAINESVILLE -- No. 6 Florida entered Saturday’s showdown against Tennessee red-hot, winners of nine straight games including back-to-back road victories in Southeastern Conference play.
And yet, coach Billy Donovan was frustrated, believing his Gators were “winning the battles but losing the war.”
Following consecutive lackluster performances -- especially defensively -- at Auburn and Alabama, Donovan implored his team to play desperate.
“It’s a gift,” Donovan said. “A gift.”
Florida (17-2, 6-0 SEC) curb-stomped its recent Achilles heel, dominating Tennessee 67-41 for its 26th straight victory inside the O’Connell Center.
Saturday’s good ole fashion whippin’ was punctuated by alley-oop dunks, fastbreak layups and Michael Frazier 3-pointers, as the Gators avenged a three-game skid against the Volunteers.
But Florida’s win -- in Donovan’s 600th career game -- was ignited by a relentlessly suffocating -- and desperate -- defense.
“Coach [Donovan] had a reoccurring theme of being desperate -- desperate as if this was the national championship game,” senior center Patric Young said. “Every possession is the championship possession. We were locked in and focused on whatever it took to win. When you can hold Jordan McRae to five points and he gets frustrated, your team did something right. I think we did something right tonight."
The Gators -- led by senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin -- defended possessed and feasted on the Volunteers’ inability to shoot, pass or dribble.
“We had a chip on our shoulder,” Young said. “They kicked our butts the last three times [we played them].
Said UT coach Cuonzo Martin: "Florida did a great job defending. Really. They turned us over, sped us up with the press. … We just couldn't make shots.”
Florida held Tennessee (12-7, 3-3 SEC) to a season-low 41 points -- 34 points below its season average, pressing Young to say afterwards, “I can't see an offense we can’t stop.”
The Volunteers were an abysmal 1-of-19 from 3-point range and committed 13 turnovers.
McRae, who averages 19.1 points per game, scored his lowest out-put of the season (five points), finishing with a stat-line (1-of-15, 1-for-6 from 3-point range, zero assists or steals) that would scare even the most fervent American Horror Story fans.
“I thought most all his shots were challenged,” Donovan said. “We made it really difficult.”
But before Florida wiped out UT, Saturday’s first half was a grind-it-out game.
Despite an 11-2 run -- which included the first of two highlight jams by Young -- Florida led just 26-19 at halftime as it was held scoreless for more than three minutes to end the period.
But an increase in intensity, coupled with an electric crowd and improved shot-making turned the back-and-forth affair into a rout.
“To be down seven at the half -- shooting like 20 percent -- we felt pretty good about ourselves,” UT senior center Jeronne Maymon said. “But we came out and they turned it up another notch and we kind of stayed where we were.”
The Gators opened the second half on a 21-5 run and later smothered the Vols into a five-minute scoreless drought. Junior center Jarnell Stokes (16 points, 10 rebounds) was UT’s lone bright spot, as the rest of the team combined to shoot an astonishing 19.1 percent.
Frazier paced the Gators with 17 points, also assisting on both of Young’s dunks including a lob for a ridiculous one-handed jam surely to be seen on SportsCenter.
THIS & THAT
Casey Prather topped double-figures (12 points) for the 17th straight game, while Wilbekin and Young added 13 and 10 points, respectively. ... UF was out-rebounded 40-35, including 16-7 on the offensive glass. ... Florida shot 51 percent in the second half.
"We'll see. I don't know if ESPN likes putting the Gators in the Top 10 all that much."
-- Young, on if his dunk would be featured on SportsCenter.
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