3 takeaways from Florida Gators men's basketball 78-71 loss at Tennessee Vols

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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Despite 16 points apiece from Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji, Florida built a double-digit lead in the first half behind efficient long-range shooting, but the Gators couldn’t thwart the No. 20-ranked Volunteers’ comeback effort, falling 78-71 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

The victory marked Tennessee’s sixth-consecutive win against the Gators.

Florida, playing its third contest in a five-day span, led 42-34 at halftime on 15-of-29 shooting on field-goal attempts, but lost forward Jason Jitoboh for the remainder of the contest late in the first half. 

The Gators cut the deficit to 74-71 with 31 seconds remaining on Appleby’s three-pointer from the corner, but the Volunteers went 4-of-4 from the free throw line to improve to 11-0 at home this season. 

Here are 3 takeaways from Florida’s loss to Tennessee. 

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Backcourt comes out firing

Appleby, making his first start in Florida’s last five contests, was feeling it early against the Volunteers. The senior guard knocked down his first two three-point attempts while contributing an assist and steal — all within the first four minutes of the game. 

Not to be outdone, Brandon McKissic — the other member of UF’s starting backcourt — quickly added back-to-back three-pointers of his own following an early miss, giving the Gators a 4-of-5 start from long-range. 

Florida would finish the first half with a 7-of-16 mark from beyond the arc — not as impressive as the Vols’ 8-of-14 first-half shooting performance from three-point range, but a noticeable improvement from UF’s previous contest, Monday’s 70-54 loss at Ole Miss.

Appleby finished the first half with a team-high 10 points while dishing a game-high six assists. 

“I thought Tyree in the first half was as good as he’s been in any half since he’s been here,” UF coach Mike White said. “He did a good job.” 

Appleby added two more from deep in the second half to finish 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, although he did commit four turnovers in 18 minutes of play. 

Despite the undesirable outcome, White felt as if the Gators showed improvement from the 16-point loss to the Rebels.

“I thought we fought harder,” White said. “I thought our guys played as hard as we possibly can play.” 

Florida center Jason Jitoboh comes off the court after being injured on a play during the first half Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn.

Jitoboh's painful exit

Florida’s frontcourt took another hit Wednesday. 

With 2:30 remaining in the first half, and the Gators possessing a 12-point lead, Jason Jitoboh was hit in the face on a putback attempt. The junior forward was clearly in serious pain after the play, and Florida’s training staff quickly led him to the visiting locker room. 

As the second half commenced, it was clear Jitoboh wouldn’t return to the contest, forcing Florida to play a small-ball lineup the rest of the way, with sophomore Tuongthach Gatkek manning the low post alongside Anthony Duruji for the remainder of the game. 

Duruji wasn’t eager to point to Jitoboh’s exit as a catalyst in the defeat, although he did note the impact of the play. 

“Jason’s been playing so well, you know, so losing him, that was a big hit that we took, but again, next man up. We don’t have C.J., we don’t have Colin, but we can’t make excuses for ourselves,” Duruji said. “It comes with the game, and we don’t want to make excuses. We have to continue to try to fight through adversity, because we knew there was going to be adversity — there’s going to be adversity every game.”

But White had no problem acknowledging the obvious: the loss of Jitoboh significantly altered Florida’s gameplan. 

“It changed a lot, offensively and defensively. It changed our whole approach really, in terms of defensively, we were just trying different things,” White said. “Then offensively we’re running some stuff against one of the best defenses in the country, and Jason’s our best screener.

“Obviously on the interior, just not much of an interior threat there in the second 20.”

Unsure of Jitoboh’s diagnosis, White didn’t have a timeline for the junior forward’s return, saying it’s possible he’s out for Saturday’s contest at home against Oklahoma State.

“Definitely a possibility (he’s out), because I just don’t know what it is. But I was told at halftime that he’s out,” White said. “So he was with the doctors and I guess he’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow by our doctors. It’s just a tough deal. I feel for him. I feel for these guys, I feel for him.”

Florida guard Brandon McKissic (23) dives for the loose ball ahead of Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler (5) during the first half Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn.

Felder's surprising return

As expected, Colin Castleton missed his fourth consecutive contest with a shoulder injury, while C.J. Felder, listed as a game-time decision with a non-COVID illness, didn’t appear to be available after remaining on the bench for the entire first half.

However, despite not playing in the first half, Felder was thrust into some unexpected action in the second half as a result of Jitoboh’s game-ending ailment. The junior played just three minutes, missing his only shot attempt. 

White called Felder’s play “courageous,” saying he had been unable to participate prior to taking the court in the second half. 

“He has not done anything for a few days now. He’s been really sick. Questionable at best he would play,” White said. “It was courageous for him just to get out there. Heck, I could see in his face and his body just that he’s lost significant weight there in the past few days. He’s got character. He tried to help us.”

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