When Florida and Tennessee met last Sunday, the Volunteers cut into a 13-point deficit late in the first half before cruising to victory during a dominant second half.
The two teams rematched Friday in the SEC Tournament Quarterfinals. But this time, the Gators trimmed their 13-point deficit to nine before the break after center Jason Jitoboh’s tip-in and guard Tre Mann’s jumper.
Instead of a momentous comeback, the Gators wilted in a second half marked by ineffective offense and an embarrassing ejection from center Omar Payne.
Florida coach Mike White continued to tinker with the starting lineup as both Payne and center Colin Castleton took the floor for tip-off. White’s change was likely motivated by Tennessee’s 19-6 domination on the offensive glass a week ago.
The Gators rebounded much better Friday, as each team grabbed 12 offensive boards. However, Florida’s twin towers struggled to guard the interior as Tennessee scored its first six points in the paint.
Noah Locke and Tyree Appleby hit back-to-back threes to tie the score, but the UF offense quickly defaulted to hibernation as the Gators hit just two field goals in the next 10 minutes.
Tennessee's Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi rippled the nylon from deep before a Uros Plavsic layup. The Gators faced an embarrassing 28-12 deficit just 12 minutes into the game.
Florida mustered some defensive fortitude, held Tennessee to just one field goal in the last six minutes of the first half and embarked on a 10-3 run.
Florida shot just 30% percent in the first half and saw star guard Mann limited to two points. The Gators trailed by single digits and looked poised to make a run out of the locker room.
Mann immediately stamped his mark on the second half, swishing a jumper and a pair of free throws to drag the Gators within seven.
However, Payne delivered a vicious elbow to John Fulkerson’s head, which culminated in a Flagrant-2 two foul and an election.
“I saw him just elbow John in the face,” Tennessee guard Yves Pons said. “That was a dirty play. That is nothing to do on a basketball court. We took it personally. We love John.”
Tennessee ratcheted up the intensity on the defensive end and allowed Mann to score the only two Gator buckets for the next four minutes. As the Volunteers built a 17-point advantage, Mann was the only barrier to a blowout. The sophomore played a nearly perfect second half with 28 points on 7-11 shooting.
The rest of Florida’s roster shot an abysmal 4-17 in the second half and allowed their opponents to shoot a searing 54%. White gave Tennessee credit for his teams scoring woes and noted the Vols’ interior defense.
“They just beat us up on the interior,” White said. “Hard to get anything going close to the rim. They're terrific defensively.”
UF found an offensive spark midway through the second half as three Jitoboh points from Jitoboh were followed by a Locke clutch three to cut the deficit to single digits.
Castleton and Mann both converted under the rim, but Tennessee answered each Florida bucket. An 8-2 Volunteer run restored their 17-point advantage and buried the Gators for good.
Florida will now await their fate on Selection Sunday as they limped into the NCAA Tournament with a loss in three of four games. The Gators must await their selection Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on CBS.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @declanaw