ATLANTA — Top-ranked Florida showed again Saturday exactly how good a defensive team it is.
The Gators held Tennessee to one basket for the final 12 minutes and extended its winning streak to 25 games with a 56-49 victory in the Southeastern Conference semifinals Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
Florida (31-2) trailed by 10 points in the first half, but held Tennessee (21-12) to 14 points after intermission.
“We just tried to play harder, we didn’t do anything different,” said senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year.
Senior center Patric Young broke a 49-49 tie on a basket with 2:24 remaining and the Gators closed out the victory by making 5-of-6 free throws.
Young led Florida with 16 points and eight rebounds, Wilbekin had 14 points and junior forward Casey Prather scored 12.
With the Gators, though, it is all about defense.
Tennessee, which had won five straight games in a late bid for the NCAA Tournament, shot only 25 percent from the field in the second half and was 2-for-13 from behind the 3-point arc for the game.
“We just really got locked in defensively,” said Young, the SEC defensive player of the year. “It was a battle, but we had to be fearless.”
Senior guard Jordan McRae had 15 points for Tennessee and junior forward Jarnell Stokes scored 13.
“It’s painful, because we were so close,” Stokes said. “But Florida’s defense is so great. They took away our inside game in the second half.”
Tennessee trailed for the first time in six games when Prather opened the scoring with a basket for Florida, but the Volunteers controlled most of the first half.
The lead was 10 points until Wilbekin hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to pull Florida to within 35-28 at halftime. Wilbekin had 13 points at the break as Florida shot 54.5 percent.
Tennessee had a decided edge inside, with senior forward Maymon and Stokes, both 6 foot 8 and 260 pounds, scoring eight points each in the half.
McRae led the Volunteers, who shot 53.8 percent, with 10 first-half points.
Florida used a 10-2 run at the start to the second half to take its first lead since early in the game, 38-37. Tennessee regained the lead by scoring six straight points and led by five points with 12 minutes remaining after a basket by Stokes.
However, Tennessee scored only six points the rest of the game. The only basket was a 3-pointer by McRae that tied it, 49-49, with 2:48 remaining.
The Volunteers lost Maymon, who had 10 points and nine rebounds, with four minutes remaining when he followed a personal with a technical to foul out.
“We had a lot of calls that went against us,” Stokes said.
The Volunteers and Gators played twice in the regular season, with Florida winning, 67-41, at home on Jan. 25 and, 67-58, at Tennessee on Feb. 11 en route to going 18-0 in SEC play.
The Gators trailed, 34-33, at halftime in the second game before spurting late and did the same thing again.
“We’ve got to do a better job of focusing from the start of the game,” Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said.
Said senior forward Will Yeguete: “We knew we had to get some stops or we were going to go home.”
NOTES: The top four seeds reached the SEC semifinals for the first time since 2005. Kentucky and Georgia, who played in the second semifinal Saturday, tied for second place during the regular season. … Tennessee had not advanced to the semifinals since 2010, when the Volunteers were routed by Kentucky, 74-45. … Florida last won the SEC tournament in 2007, the year it claimed its second straight NCAA championship. The Gators lost to Ole Miss in the SEC title game last year.
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