Gators can't manage a win against Tennessee


Published: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Florida players promised more effort, more intensity and more desire in Tuesday night's nationally-televised showdown with Tennessee.

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Taurean Greeen (11) charges into Tennessee's Ramar Smith (12) as Duke Crews (32) defends during the first half of their college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007 in Knoxville, Tenn.

The Associated Press

In stretches, they delivered. Ultimately, defensive lapses, turnovers and tired shooting again doomed a Gator team that displayed its championship swagger too late.

Florida (25-5, 12-3) suffered its second-straight loss for the first time this season, falling to Tennessee 86-76 before 24.315 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Slipping away is a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Florida would almost certainly have to win its season finale against Kentucky and the SEC Tournament in order to garner its first top seed in school history.

Tennessee (21-9, 9-6) closed out its first undefeated season at home since 1975-76. Junior guard Chris Lofton, the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer with 20.8 points per game, led the Vols with 21 points.

Al Horford led Florida with 17 points, with Chris Richard and Corey Brewer adding 12 points apiece. Joakim Noah provided a spark late with eight points and 11 rebounds.

"We have to stick together," Noah said. "We have some issues right now. Everybody had to look in the mirror, stay focused and work toward the same goal, which is winning the game."

Noah implied that a lack of unity on offense was an issue.

"We have to get that ball back hopping, doing what we do best," Noah said. "Right now, it's just not there.

"It's just that unity, the way we were playing on offense. We're not in sync right now."

Florida finished with 20 turnovers.

Asked if unity was a problem, Florida coach Billy Donovan responded: "I don't know if it's unity as much as it's guys trying to do too much. We've always been a team that's shared the basketball. Tonight, instead of taking what the defense gave us, we were forcing things."

Florida couldn't overcome a 27-point second-half deficit. The Gators tried with a 21-4 run, cutting Tennesee's lead to 69-61 when Walter Hodge hit two free throws with 5:38 remaining.

But Florida couldn't come up with the big shots late. The Gators were six of 21 from 3-point range, missing their last seven 3-point attempts.

Tennessee extended a 19-point halftime lead to 27, scoring the first eight points of the second half to go up 58-31 on a Bradshaw 3-pointer.

"It's frustating," Horford said. "I feel like we know what the problems are, we just aren't correcting them."

Noah awoke from an offensive fog too late. Saddled with two fouls in the first half, Noah didn't score his first basket until 11:59 remaining.

Noah sparked Florida's comeback effort, scoring six points during a 9-0 run. Florida's press forced a turnover during the spurt, with a Brewer steal resulting in a Noah layup.

A driving Noah basket cut Tennesse's lead to 65-49. After JeJuan Smith put Tennessee ahead 69-54, Florida answered with another 7-0 run.

Despite coming out with more energy early, Florida found itself in a familiar first-half hole. After a Horford layup put the Gators up 17-16, Tennessee responded with a 17-0 run. The Vols scored five of the baskets during the stretch on layups, either in transition or off the dribble.

Lofton's first 3-pointer of the game put Tennessee up 25-17. Smith followed with a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 31-17, bringing the Thompson-Boling sellout into a frenzy.

Noah picked up his second foul at the 9:32 mark and was held scoreless in eight first-half minutes. Twice in the first half, Brewer missed Noah on passed toward the right baseline. Florida turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, with five unforced turnovers.

Tennessee made 14 of its first 21 shots, finishing the half shooting 66.7 percent (20 of 30) from the floor.

About the only thing that kept the first half from being a complete embarrassment was Horford, who scored 12 first-half points inside. But in a sign of Florida's recent struggles, Horford drew an offensive foul when he was unable to get the ball to point guard Taurean Green with the first half winding down. Horford instead drove to the basket, bumping Tennessee's Duke Crews with 3.3 seconds remaining.

Lofton missed a desparation 3-pointer at the buzzer, and Tennessee went into halftime up 50-31.

"It's up to us," Green said. "It's not the coaching staff, not the opponents. We've got to make a decision whether we're going to make the commitment to get this turned around."

Contact Brandon Zimmerman at 374-5051 or zimmerb@gvillesun.com.

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