Tennessee 86, No. 5 Florida 76
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Everything fell into place for Tennessee.
Super Bowl MVP Peyton Manning talked to the Volunteers before they took the court against No. 5 Florida. Then, Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt belted out “Rocky Top” while wearing a cheerleader uniform during a timeout, and a near-capacity Thompson-Boling Arena also included football coach Phillip Fulmer.
And in the game, Tennessee stunned the Gators with a big first-half run en route to an 86-76 victory Tuesday night to finish 16-0 at home.
Chris Lofton scored 21 points while JaJuan Smith added 16 points for Tennessee (21-9, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) and Ramar Smith and Dane Bradshaw each had 10 points.
The Gators (25-5, 12-3) continued a troubling trend for the defending national champions, who have lost three of four after a 17-game winning streak. Their chances for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament are likely slipping away after easily wrapping up the SEC regular-season title last week.
Al Horford led Florida with 17 points while Chris Richard and Corey Brewer had 12 apiece. Joakim Noah added 11 rebounds and Horford had 10.
But this was the Vols’ night.
“We pulled everything out for this one,” coach Bruce Pearl said.
“You’ve got coach Fulmer behind the bench. You’ve got coach Summitt and the Lady Vols staff out there in a timeout. You’ve got Peyton Manning. Pretty strong family. How can you lose when you have that kind of family?”
Manning, the former Tennessee star, told the team to trust their teammates, a lesson he learned this season.
“You’ve got to rely on each other. I thought our team trusted one another tonight,” Pearl said.
The Vols dominated Florida until the Gators started making a run late in the second half.
Tennessee had a 17-0 run in the first half and were ahead by 19 points at halftime and as many as 27 in the second half.
The Vols were leading 65-40 with 11:54 left when Florida had a 14-2 run that included eight points by Noah. His dunk with 9:22 remaining cut it to 67-54.
Tennessee scored again, but the Gators answered with a 7-0 run to pull to 69-61 with 6:08 to go. A drive by Lofton started a 6-0 run for the Vols, and the Gators couldn’t get any closer.
“When we play at home, we’re hard to beat,” Lofton said. “It’s the crowd. You’re at your home gym and everybody is with you. I feel like we come out and play hard at home.”
Florida has struggled recently, losing by 13 at Vanderbilt and 10 at LSU around a win over South Carolina.
“I don’t think people should look at us for slow starts. I don’t understand why Tennessee and Vanderbilt don’t get credit,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “When teams are playing against a team that’s won so much, teams are going to come out ready to play.”
Donovan said earlier this week he believed his Gators might have been tired or suffering a letdown from winning the SEC title early.
“I think guys are trying to do too much, but I don’t see any unity issues,” he said.
The Gators rallied from 18 points down against Alabama on Feb. 14 to win 76-67. It was the biggest deficit overcome by a team coached by Donovan, and they looked poised for another miracle comeback.
However, Florida couldn’t sustain a rally.
After pulling to within eight, the Gators cut it to nine three more times, but the final 1:58 featured seven trips to the foul line for Tennessee. The Vols went 8-of-14 in free throws down the stretch.
In the first half, Florida was leading 17-16 with 13:48 left after Horford scored, and Bradshaw’s basket over Noah sparked the big run. When Duke Crews scored with 8:05 left to end it, the Vols were up 33-17.
Tennessee got many baskets in the first half by drawing Florida’s defense outside and driving in the paint.
Noah had another off night, scoring all eight of his points in Florida’s late run. He scored 10 points in the previous two games.
“I feel like we’re playing hard, but it’s just not happening,” Noah said.
The Gators’ leading scorer, Taurean Green, was held to nine points—four below his average.
Appropriately, the Vols honored their lone senior, Bradshaw, before the final home game. Bradshaw made go-ahead layups in each of the Vols’ wins last year over Florida.
Bradshaw had a steal with 1:33 and was fouled by Lee Humphrey to thwart Florida’s scheme at the end to stop the clock and try to get the lead down. Bradshaw made both free throws. He had gone 12 games without scoring in double digits.
The Gators had an easier time against Tennessee in Gainesville, winning 94-78, while Tennessee was playing without Lofton because he had a sprained right ankle.
The Vols finished undefeated at home for the first time since 1975-76, and a near-capacity crowd of 24,047 saw the home finale.
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