Florida eliminated from SEC tourney by Tennessee, 78-66

Special to Gatorsports.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Different day, same results against Tennessee for Florida's basketball team.

The Vols eliminated Florida in the quarterfinal round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament by pounding out a 78-66 win Friday at Bridgestone Arena, their second consecutive over the Gators in the span of six days.

No. 4 seed Tennessee (18-7) now plays top seed Alabama (22-6), ranked No. 5 nationaly in the coaches' poll, in the tourney semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN. The Tide defeated nine seed Mississippi State 85-48 in the day's first quarterfinal.

More:Omar Payne ejected from SEC Tournament quarterfinals after getting start vs. Vols

Florida's Osayi Osifo (15) and Tennessee's Yves Pons get tangled in the first half Friday of the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal in Nashville, Tenn.

The SEC five seed Gators (14-9), projected as a No. 8 or 9 seed, will await their NCAA Tournament fate on Selection Sunday after the third loss in their last four games. Tre Mann had a game and career-high 30 points for Florida by scoring 28 second-half points.

Santiago Vescovi scored 14 points to lead five Volunteers in double figures, as Tennessee advance to the semifinals for a third straight tournament. Yves Pons nearly had a triple-double with 11 points, eight rebounds and nine blocked shots that tied the SEC tournament single-game record set by Kentucky's Andre Riddick in the 1993 title game. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer each had 13 points, and Josiah-Jordan James added 10 with nine rebounds.

Omar Payne's ejection cost Gators dearly

Florida's bid to get back in the game all but disappeared at the 17:10 mark of the second half when Omar Payne was ejected from the game for throwing a flagrant elbow to the head of Tennessee senior John Fulkerson, who left the court and did not return. Replays showed Payne caught Fulkerson' with a left, forearm shiver to the face, then put his right elbow into Fulkerson's head. Officials ejected Payne after review.

Vols coach Rick Barnes said Fulkerson was taken to a Nashville hospital “just for observation.” Barnes was told that Fulkerson’s eye was being evaluated.

“I don’t know if I could say we could count on him (Saturday),” Barnes said. “Again, we’ll wait and see. My gut feeling, he took two pretty good licks right there. I would be surprised if he is available.”

Vescovi made both free throws to put the Vols up 37-26. 

“That was a dirty play,” Pons said. “That is nothing to do on a basketball court. We took it personally. We love John. We play for him. We had his back.”

Florida coach Mike White said after the game he hadn't seen a replay of the foul.

“I hope he’s OK,” said White, who gave Fulkerson an ovation on Senior Day last weekend. “Got a lot of respect for him, the way he plays, the way he approaches the game.”

UT took over from there, as the closest the Gators got was eight points on a Noah Locke 3 with 11:20 remaining that cut the deficit to 47-39. The Vols weren't really threatened the rest of the way.

Florida's Tre Mann (1) shoots as he is defended by Tennessee's Yves Pons (35) in the first half Friday of the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal in Nashville, Tenn.

Tennessee took a 31-22 lead at the break playing much like it did in last Sunday's win over Florida, playing strong defense and outrebounding the Gators, who were only 9 of 30 (30 percent) from the field. UF also had nine turnovers.

The Vols clamped down on Mann, who scored 22 points Thursday but had only 2 at the half on 1-of-8 shooting.

The Gators did manage to cut a 23-10 deficit when Jordan-James made a 3-pointer for the Vols at 7:53, by going on a 7-0 run later that ended on Mann's basket to make it 28-19 with 2:55 remaining. Tennessee also missed 10 of its last 11 shots.

The SEC's best shooting team couldn't outshoot the Vols as they shot only 34.5 % (20 of 58) compared to 46.% (28 of 60). The Gators also struggled with their composure a bit too. Not only was Payne ejected for the flagrant foul, they picked up another technical with 11:49 to go during a media timeout.

“I think we lack the emotional maturity that you need day in and day out to be a championship-level team,” White said.

Tennessee 78, Florida 66

FLORIDA (14-9)

Castleton 2-7 0-0 4, Payne 1-1 0-0 2, Appleby 3-13 5-5 14, Locke 2-5 0-0 6, Mann 8-19 9-10 30, Lewis 0-4 0-0 0, Osifo 1-3 0-0 2, Duruji 1-3 1-1 3, Jitoboh 2-3 1-2 5, Lane 0-0 0-0 0, Ruzhentsev 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-58 16-18 66.

TENNESSEE (18-7)

Fulkerson 3-4 2-2 8, Keo.Johnson 6-11 1-2 13, Springer 5-13 3-4 13, Vescovi 4-9 2-4 14, Pons 4-9 1-2 11, James 3-4 2-2 10, Bailey 2-9 2-2 7, Plavsic 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 28-60 13-18 78.

Halftime_Tennessee 31-22. 3-Point Goals_Florida 10-24 (Mann 5-11, Appleby 3-8, Locke 2-4, Lewis 0-1), Tennessee 9-25 (Vescovi 4-9, James 2-3, Pons 2-3, Bailey 1-5, Keo.Johnson 0-2, Springer 0-3). Fouled Out_Keo.Johnson. Rebounds_Florida 28 (Castleton 7), Tennessee 36 (Keo.Johnson, Pons, James 9). Assists_Florida 7 (Castleton, Lewis 2), Tennessee 21 (James 7). Total Fouls_Florida 18, Tennessee 18.