As Tennessee guard Keon Johnson eyed up an offensive rebound in the shadow of three oncoming Gators, the freshman leapt with a Florida trio that was taller and more experienced.
Johnson defied 3:1 odds with effort and alertness as he grabbed an impressive rebound and threw down an emphatic dunk to cap off a 15-2 Tennessee run. Johnson’s work on the offensive glass epitomized the hustle that powered the Volunteers to a game-changing run and a dominant second half.
After trailing by as many as 13, UT surged back to claim a crucial 65-54 victory in Knoxville, Tennessee, that saw Florida end the season with back-to-back losses. The Gators now enter the SEC Tournament with a 5 seed.
Junior Tre Mann was declared out due to a migraine minutes before tip-off, which forced coach Mike White to start one of Florida’s least effective lineups against the Volunteers.
The Gators put together a strong start in Knoxville, and an and-one slam from junior Anthony Duruji powered UF to a 10-8 lead.
A rare freshman Samson Ruzhentsev bucket extended Florida’s lead to eight as the Moscow native swished the net from the right corner.
Florida built a double-digit lead by a committee in the first half, as five players contributed at least two field goals. Guard Ques Glover emerged as another surprise scorer and knocked down a jumper to give the Gators a 13-point advantage.
Tennessee found some resolve at the end of the stanza and an 8-0 surge pulled the Volunteers within five at the end of the half.
Florida maintained a three-possession advantage into the second half, but the Gator offense turned from effective to anemic and their lead wilted away.
UF shot just 31% from the field in the second half and missed all four three point attempts. White attributed his team’s offensive failures to a lack of intensity and comfort.
“We just need to work on keeping our intensity up and never get too comfortable,” White said. “I think we played pretty well in the first half. We just have to do the same things that we do in the first half in the second half to finish out games.”
The Gators’ poor shooting matched a dreadful effort on the defensive glass, losing the offensive rebounding margin 19-6. The teams actually shot about the same percentage from the field, but the Volunteers earned 14 more shots.
“Defending the glass really failed us,” White said. “I mean, they just pounded us on the glass. Early second half we came out of the locker room and it was the same thing for the last 20 minutes of the game.”
A Santiago Viscovi jumper put the Gators behind as they headed into the under-12 media timeout. Florida rolled over for Tennessee and allowed UT to close on a dominant 24-12 run. A pair of center Colin Castleton free throws cut the Volunteer lead to seven inside the final three minutes, but UF never seriously threatened to close the gap.
Florida will take the court in Nashville Thursday against the winner of Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. Tip-off is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and will stream on the SEC Network.
Contact Declan Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @declanaw