As Tennessee and Florida converged onto the court after the first media timeout, opposing guards Tyree Appleby and Santiago Vescovi were toe to toe. Both players exchanged words and neither seemed close to backing down. The interaction embodied the matchup on the court Wednesday night: Both teams trading blows, and neither giving an inch.
Florida (12-8, 3-5) fell to Tennessee (14-5, 5-3) 78-71 as the depleted Gators were unable to carry a strong start to the finish line against a talented Volunteers roster. The Gators returned winless from a two-game SEC road trip and collected their sixth-consecutive loss in Knoxville.
Despite a loss to Ole Miss just two days prior, Florida got off to a hot start. The Gators went on a 15-0 run, shooting seven for 10 from the floor across six minutes. The defense showed energy as well, forcing six-consecutive turnovers. Forward Anthony Duruji made major contributions, scoring 16 points and a team-high six rebounds.
Appleby was a spark plug for the offense. The senior matched Duruji’s effort, scoring 16 points as well and accounting for seven dimes. The latter figure led Mike White’s Gators on Wednesday night.
“I thought Tyree in the first half was as good as he's been at any half probably since he's been here,” White said.
Tennessee wouldn’t let up easily, retaliating with 11 straight points after the first media timeout, dwindling Florida’s lead to four. The run came off the shooting bursts of Volunteer guards Zakai Zeigler and Kennedy Chandler, who poured on all 11 points over the stretch.
The Gators didn’t stay on their heels for long, hitting from deep-range to take off on another scoring run. UF scored eight straight before the penultimate media timeout of the first half. Florida sank 53% of its shots from behind the arc in the first half after reaching just 13.8% in its last outing. The Gators found themselves up, 43-34 entering the locker room, .
“Coach says to let it fly, don’t think too much,” Duruji said. “We're all good players, so shoot when you're open. That's what we did.”
Tennessee responded quickly coming out of the halftime break. Just five minutes into the second period, Florida’s lead was cut to three. After a charge call on Duruji donated possession to the Vols, Thompson-Boling Arena came alive as fans sensed their team had regained momentum. Tennessee relied on a total team effort, recording 22 assists on 25 made baskets. With 10 minutes to go, the Volunteers led for the first time since the game was 10-8.
Tennessee was highly efficient after the intermission, shooting 12-26 in the second half. The run was supplemented by two questionable no-calls that would have earned the Gators six free throws. White declined to comment on the calls.
There was potential for the game to slip away, a pair of Volunteer turnovers kept the door open for Florida. With four minutes remaining, Tennessee led 67-62.
As the game came to a close, Florida was unable to hold on despite an admirable late effort. A messy possession ended with a Kowacie Reeves miss and UF turnover to seal the deal on a hard-fought matchup.
The loss marks the second conference defeat in a row for Florida. In their fourth game without star-forward Colin Castelton, the Gators are struggling to keep their footing in a competitive SEC. Losing replacement starter center Jason Jitoboh early in the game didn’t help Florida’s chances, either.
“We're continually trying to grow, put a whole game together,” Duruji said. “I think we fought together and we had each other's backs. It’s just an unfortunate ending.”
The Gators will take a short break from conference play, heading home to participate in the Big 12-SEC Challenge. Florida hosts Oklahoma State Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.