Tennessee rolls past Florida


Published: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 5:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 1, 2009 at 5:34 p.m.

Florida had reason to believe this year against Tennessee, things would be different.

The Gators entered a critical showdown with the Vols at home, where they had been unbeaten this season. Gone were Tennessee sharp-shooters Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, perimeter pests that had stung the Gators in previous matchups.

Yet a different Tennessee cast produced more heartbreak for Florida on Sunday afternoon. The Vols held on for a 79-75 win against the Gators, ending Florida's 17-game home winning streak and delivering another blow to UF's fading NCAA Tournament hopes.

"This is a difficult loss for us," Florida sophomore forward Chandler Parsons said. "We can't dwell on it. We have to move past it and figure out what we did wrong."

Time is running out. Florida closes the regular season with games Wednesday at Mississippi State and Saturday at home against Kentucky. Then, it's off to the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Tampa the following week, where Florida will play at least once.

At this point, the Gators (21-8, 8-6 SEC East) may need to win their next three games to secure an at-large bid.

"That's the furthest thing from our minds right now," junior forward Dan Werner said. "We're worried about Mississippi State."

Simply put, Florida had no answers to stop Tennessee (18-10, 9-5). The Vols obliterated Florida's press, shot over UF's matchup zone and drove past the Gators off the dribble when they extended their defense to man-to-man. Tennessee led by as many as 14 points in the first half and 16 points in the second half.

Still, Florida rallied late and had a chance in the final minute after Tennessee guard Josh Tabb was whistled for an offensive foul with 46.4 seconds left with the Gators down 75-72. But freshman Erving Walker's tying 3-point attempt never made it close to the rim. The 5-foot-7 Walker had his shot partially blocked by lunging 6-7 Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson.

"He just made a great play," said Walker, who scored 16 points off the bench. "I thought it was an open look. I was coming off a screen and he was able to get a hand on it."

The block was a microcosm for Florida's struggles with Tennessee's length and superior athletic ability.

"We made a valiant effort, but when they really needed to get something done and make a play athletically, they were able to do it," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Florida sophomore guard Nick Calathes, back at 100 percent after struggling with the flu his previous two games, led four UF players in double figures with 20 points and seven assists. But Calathes missed a critical drive along the baseline with 17 seconds left that could have cut into Tennessee's 76-72 lead.

After Tennessee forward Tyler Smith made a pair of free throws, Walker hit a 3-pointer to cut the Tennessee lead to 78-75 with 7.3 seconds left. But Smith made one of two free throws to close out the game.

Florida dropped to 4-5 this season in games decided by five points or less.

"I think all of our guys still don't understand how to make plays within the framework of the team to win games," Donovan said. "We compete hard, but there needs to be better awareness."

Smith led Tennessee with 19 points. Tennessee center Wayne Chism added 18 points.

"Our backs were clear up against the wall and I thought our kids would respond," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.

The Vols displayed that sense of urgency early. Tennessee made seven of nine 3-point attempts in the first half to jump to a 45-33 halftime lead.

"We fought back, but when you get down that much, it just makes it so hard on yourself to climb back," Parsons said. "We needed to play the first 30 minutes like we did the last 10 minutes."

Florida couldn't rally, despite a sellout crowd of 12,490 at the O'Connell Center that included UF football coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow. The Gators missed a chance to move into a first-place tie with South Carolina in the SEC East. Instead, Florida enters the final week of the regular season tied for third with Kentucky, a game behind both South Carolina and Tennessee in the standings.

Tennessee, which shot 52.6 percent from the floor, won its seventh game in its last eight meetings with Florida.

"I think our guys are trying to figure it all out," Donovan said. "As much as they are trying there are still flaws that we have and are addressing in practice. How much they are willing to address those flaws will determine how we will finish the season."

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