No. 3 Florida earns hard-fought win at Tennessee
Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at 8:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at 11:44 p.m.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With the shot clock winding down and the ball in his hands, Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin wasn’t thinking about the five previous 3-point attempts he missed.
“You just have to stay confident,” Wilbekin said. “I knew the clock was winding down and we had to get a good shot for our team. The ball was in my hands so I just took the best shot I could.”
Over the outstretched arms of Tennessee 6-foot-6 junior guard Josh Richardson, Wilbekin drained a 21-foot 3-pointer with 2:24 left, the biggest shot in No. 3 Florida’s 67-58 win over Tennessee on Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
But the biggest play came less than a minute later, when, with 1:35 left and a loose ball heading out of bounds, Florida senior center Patric Young hurled his body toward the end line, somehow corralling it to allow the Gators to retain possession up 61-55. That allowed the Gators to bleed 35 more seconds off the clock. Then, after a missed 3-point attempt from freshman point guard Kasey Hill, sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith came up with another big offensive rebound. Wilbekin was then fouled with 52 seconds left, and fans at Thompson-Boling Arena started to file toward the exits.
“Our coaches always talk about making winning plays,” Young said. “I think that goes down as a textbook winning play.”
Florida won for just the second time in its last nine trips to Knoxville.
“We all really wanted to win this game, especially the seniors,” Young said. “It’s been two years since we’ve won, and I didn’t want to give them any opportunity. … I just saw that ball and I wanted it so much and I grabbed it.”
Added Wilbekin: "This was the biggest thing on all of our minds today. We weren't thinking about anything else. We weren't thinking about the last game. We weren't thinking about the next game. We knew how important this win was to all of us."
Wilbekin finished with 21 points, six assists and four steals for his best all-around floor game as a Gator. Florida (22-2, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) will take a 16-game winning streak into its showdown Saturday night at No. 14 Kentucky.
Wilbekin made 5 of 6 free-throws down the stretch to seal the win, but Young’s hustle play also loomed large in the outcome.
“It was an incredible play, I thought, by him,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He sold out, two guys were in front of him and he ran past and made an incredible save to come up with the loose basketball, and they had to foul. It was an incredible play by him just effort-wise with four fouls.”
Young finished with six points and six rebounds before fouling out with 28 seconds remaining. Michael Frazier II added 11 points for the Gators, including a big 3-pointer in transition with 3:32 left that extended UF’s lead to 58-54.
Jarnell Stokes led Tennessee (15-9, 6-5) with 20 points and 11 rebounds, posting his 14th double-double of the season and 32nd of his career. Senior guard Jordan McRae added 17 points for the Vols.
Florida didn’t expect a win at Tennessee to come as easy as its 67-41 win over the Vols at the O’Connell Center last Jan. 25. But the Gators jumped on Tennessee early, forcing six turnovers in Tennessee’s first nine possession. A Wilbekin steal and breakaway layup put the Gators up 10-2, forcing Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin to call timeout.
McRae then heated up, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to cut Florida’s lead to 13-8. A McRae dunk in transition cut UF’s lead to 24-22. With the Gators up 26-22, Tennessee went on a 10-0 run, extending its lead to 32-26 on a jumper by senior guard Antonio Barton that brought the crowd of 18,009 into a frenzy.
But Florida answered with a 7-2 run to close the half. Florida senior forward Casey Prather made just his second 3-pointer of this season (on just his fourth attempt) to cut Tennessee’s lead to 32-29. Prather then followed with a drive in transition to cut the Vols’ lead to 32-31.
Stokes then hit a hook shot over Florida freshman Chris Walker to put the Vols up 34-31. Stokes had a chance to pad the lead at the free-throw line, but missed the front-end of the one-and-one attempt with 9.1 seconds left. Wilbekin grabbed the rebound and raced the length of the court, hitting a runner in the lane to cut Tennessee’s lead to 34-33 at halftime.
“It was important for us in terms of momentum,” Wilbekin said. “They punched us here on their homecourt and we knew that, and we wanted to punch back.”
Donovan felt encouraged because the Gators trailed by just one at halftime despite the fact that Tennessee shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the half, compared to Florida shooting just 36.4 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes.
“That's generally a recipe for being down 20 or 15 and you're in a real hole,” Donovan said. “We kind of dug ourselves out of a six-point deficit and cut it to one. I thought a lot of the shots they made in the first half, those shots didn't go down in the second half. I thought we made it a lot more difficult for McRae.”
In the second half, Florida stopped settling for 3-point attempts over Tennessee’s zone, finding lanes to the basket and working the ball inside. Florida also muscled up on the boards. After being outrebounded 40-35 in the first meeting with Tennessee, the Gators outrebounded Tennessee 39-32 on Tuesday night and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds.
“We knew we had to go in there and bleed and battle and fight and bite and scratch to come up with some loose balls,” Young said. “Everyone got in there … it was a collective team effort, especially from our guards.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.