KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Volunteers Tennessee had a chance for a statement win Tuesday night against the No. 3 Florida Gators.
But senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and the Gators (22-2, 11-0) had other ideas.
Behind a terrific performance on both ends of the floor from Wilbekin, Florida won its 16 straight, beating Tennessee 67-58 for just its second win in its nine last trips to Thompson-Boling Arena.
Wilbekin finished with 21 points, six assists and four steals. His biggest shot came with 2:24 left, when, with the shot clock winding down, he made a 21-foot 3-pointer to extend Florida’s lead to 61-54. From there, Wilbekin made 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to close out the game.
“This was the biggest thing on all of our minds today,” Wilbekin said, when asked about Florida’s recent struggles at Tennessee. “We weren’t thinking about anything else. We weren’t thinking about the last game. We weren’t thinking about the next game. We knew how important this win was to all of us.”
Forward Jarnell Stokes led Tennessee with 20 points and 11 rebounds and guard Jordan McRae added 17 points. But it was not enough for the Vols (15-9, 6-5) to avoid their second loss against the Gators this season.
“We came out and played with fire,” Stokes said. “They made shots down the stretch. They rebounded down the stretch. Losses like this, it’s hard because we were right there.”
Guard Michael Frazier II added 11 points for Florida and senior center Patric Young had six points and six rebounds before fouling out with 28 seconds left. Young also came up with a huge hustle play late, diving for a loose ball that allowed Florida to retain possession up 61-55 with 1:35 remaining. The Gators were able to bleed another 35 seconds off the clock. After sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith corralled another offensive rebound for the Gators, Wilbekin was fouled and made one of two free throws with 52 seconds left to extend UF’s lead to 62-55.
“It was an incredible play by (Young),” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He sold out. Two guys were in front of him and he ran past them and made an incredible save and just came up with the loose ball. It was just an incredible play by him just effort-wise with him with four fouls.”
Facing the chance to pick up a statement win at home, Tennessee showed some early jitters, turning the ball over on six of its first nine possessions. Wilbekin had three steals during that span, including a steal and breakaway layup that gave the Gators an early 10-2 lead.
The Volunteers regrouped, and McRae hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut Florida’s lead to 13-8. McRae later sank a jumper to cut Florida’s lead to 22-16, then finished a breakaway dunk in transition to cut the margin to 24-22.
After two free throws from Florida senior forward Casey Prather put the Gators up 26-22, Tennessee went on a 10-0 run. Stokes scored the first six points of the run, including a put-back that gave the home team its first lead (28-26) since the opening seconds of the game.
Senior point guard Antonio Barton then scored on a runner in the lane and a jumper to extend Tennessee’s lead to 32-26.
Florida closed the half with a 7-2 run. Wilbekin grabbed a defensive rebound and drove the length of the floor, scoring a runner in the lane at the buzzer to cut Tennessee’s lead to 34-33 at halftime.
The Gators shot 36.4 percent from the field in the first half. Tennessee shot 62.5 percent but committed nine first-half turnovers.
For the game, Tennessee outshot Florida, 45.8 percent to 36.2 percent. The Volunteers finished with 15 turnovers, while the Gators gave the ball away 12 times. Florida also outrebounded Tennessee 39-32, after getting outrebounded 40-35 in the first meeting between the two schools.
“Billy Donovan probably had them fired up about going to the glass, letting them know that’s one of our strengths,” Stokes said. “There were a lot of tipped balls, a lot of 50-50 balls. If I were to take it back, I wouldn’t have left in my teammates hands to get some of those balls. I would have grabbed them myself.”
NOTES: Tennessee freshman Darius Thompson
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