KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Florida took the court against Tennessee as the last undefeated team in the country, knowing two others had gone down earlier in the day.
The Gators made it 0-3 for the unbeatens Saturday.
Tennessee put an end to the surprising Gators’ best start in school history with an 80-76 victory, behind Chris Lofton’s 29 points.
Florida (17-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) No. 1 Duke and No. 9 Pittsburgh all began the day with perfect records and road games to play. But Duke lost to Georgetown and Pitt fell to St. John’s, making the Gators the lone unbeaten by tipoff Saturday night.
“We had won 17 games, but going into tonight we were 0-0,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I knew Duke had lost, but these are different guys. They are more wrapped up in trying to become a good team, to become better individually and really sacrifice for one another.”
The Gators would have been in prime position to take over the No. 1 spot from Duke. They’ve been No. 1 twice before, but this year’s climb has been the most impressive.
Florida wasn’t ranked in the preseason poll and wasn’t even considered among the best teams in the SEC after losing Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson and David Lee from a team that went 24-8 last season.
But the Volunteers (12-3, 3-1) are also having a surprisingly good year under new coach Bruce Pearl, despite losing two straight coming into Saturday.
They had won at then-No. 6 Texas last month, giving Tennessee fans hope that Pearl was bringing new life to the program that had been mediocre the past four years under Buzz Peterson.
“That is a shot that is going to be heard around the world,” Pearl said. “I couldn’t be happier.”
The Vols seemed more inspired by the possibility of keeping Florida away from No. 1 as the Gators were to be the top-ranked team in the country.
“If you asked me, I would have thought that would have been a motivator for Florida to wake up tomorrow as the No. 1 team in the country,” Pearl said.
The final 9 1/2 minutes were tight and got tighter as the clock wound down.
Corey Brewer had tied it at 76 for Florida with 45 seconds remaining on two foul shots.
Lofton missed a 3 at the other end for Tennessee, and Brewer got the outlet pass and was racing for the basket when Lofton stole it.
Dane Bradshaw caught a long pass from Lofton and scored a layup that put the Vols ahead 78-76 with 20 seconds left.
Florida’s Lee Humphrey then missed a 3 with 6 seconds left, and Lofton was fouled. He sank both foul shots to seal it. Taurean Green fired a long 3 in desperation at the end, but Tennessee got the rebound. As the buzzer sounded, Tennessee students stormed the court, hugging the players.
Lofton was 10-for-19 from the floor and Andre Patterson had 12 points and 10 rebounds. JaJuan Smith added 10 points.
Brewer scored 20 points despite hurting his right ankle in the first half. Green had 17 points and Joakim Noah and Al Horford each scored 11 points.
“We played great tonight, we really did,” Donovan said. “They gave me everything I could possibly want. I am really proud of the way our team responded here. This was the toughest road environment we faced all season.”
The excitement swirling around the matchup drew over 24,000 fans to the normally cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena, including Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt and football coach Phillip Fulmer.
Pearl was wearing a tie with orange, blue and black stripes given to him by Summitt, who got victory No. 900 this week at Vanderbilt.
“She didn’t tell me when to wear it, but she just gave it to me today so I wore it on the first day. I wasn’t sure it had any many wins left in it after all the wins she’s had,” Pearl said.
The young Gators—four sophomores start—had put together the longest winning streak in school history and Florida’s last regular-season loss was 21 games ago to LSU on Feb. 19, 2005.
The Vols have been the spoiler before. They won in Gainesville last year to give Florida its first SEC loss.
But wins over top-5 teams in Knoxville have been few and far between. The Vols last win over a No. 2 team was against Kentucky on Feb. 24, 1993.
Florida led most of the first half and were ahead by eight early in the second half after a 3 by Humphrey, the long-range shooter from nearby Maryville, about 20 minutes from the campus.
The Vols kept it close afterward while both teams maintained a frantic pace. Fouls started to be an issue late, and Tennessee’s leading scorer and point guard C.J. Watson fouled out with 2:53 left.
Jordan Howell filled in for Watson, and the sophomore sank his first career free throw with 1:30 remaining that put the Vols up 76-74. He missed the second.
In the end, defense saved Tennessee, which came into the game leading the league in steals at 11 per game. The Vols finished with nine steals, and Florida had 19 turnovers.