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Friday, May 27, 2022

Some teams search forever to prove themselves.

It isn't common for fate to fall into your own hands.

Yet, here on March 5, in their most important regular-season game in recent memory, the Gators hold the key to their postseason lives.

When UF (21-8, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 4 Tennessee (26-3, 12-2 SEC) Wednesday night at 9, a chance to play in this year's March Madness will be on the line.

"Everybody knows our lives are at stake here," forward Adam Allen said.

Allen said the team remains confident but aware of how twisted the road will become if UF fails to pull the upset.

It's unlikely the Gators will earn a bid to this year's NCAA Tournament with a .500 conference record - something they will face if they lose.

It will become do-or-die on Sunday, when UF heads to the hostile stomping grounds of always-stingy Kentucky.

For such a young, inexperienced team, a game of that stature on the road might not be the ideal situation UF coach Billy Donovan wants.

"I think there are a lot of things that you're trying to piece together and trying to take a stab in the dark at it," Donovan said. "These guys have never experienced this."

If UF can pull off the unlikely win, all the mounting questions and anxieties of late will melt away.

Win and you're in, it's as simple as that.

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As storybook as it sounds, however, the task is far from easy.

When these teams last met on Feb. 5, the Gators hung close for most of the contest before the Volunteers wiped the floor with UF in the final minutes.

The scored ended up a deceiving 104-82.

UF showed it could play the up-tempo, high-octane game Tennessee loves to play, but it didn't play it well enough.

The Gators were doomed by fatigue and a lack of depth, which was exposed in those final few minutes, where Donovan felt his team ran out of gas.

UF's ability to hang with one of the nation's best helped boost the confidence of many of its players. They remain confident heading into Wednesday night's contest and feel they can steal this win.

Tennessee has won four of the last five against UF and was ranked No. 1 last week.

"This time, it's going to be a 40-minute game, and we have to come with the right mindset," Allen said. "We know we can play with them. It's just a matter of doing it for the whole game."

Defense will be a major concern for the Gators.

Tennessee is the only team to break the century mark against UF this season and did so by attempting a staggering 71 shots from the field.

Guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith hit six 3-pointers each, and four players scored 10 or more points.

With the way the Gators are shooting lately, UF doesn't want to get caught in another high-scoring affair.

UF connected on just 36.1 percent of its attempts in Saturday's loss to Mississippi State.

"Well clearly we're playing, if not the best team, one of the best teams in the country," Donovan said. "There's a lot for us to get prepared for in playing these guys."

One positive is that UF will face Lofton for the final time during the regular season. The senior will be making his farewell Gainesville appearance.

In two games at the O'Connell Center, Lofton has scored 22 and 16 points. In this year's win against UF in Knoxville, he added 26.

Lofton is known for his difficult shot-making and unconscious demeanor on the court. Allen joked about switching roles with the Tennessee star and imagined taking some of the shots Lofton is revered for.

"I probably wouldn't see the court for the rest of the game," Allen said.

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