Maybe what they needed was to hit rock bottom because with 16:17 remaining in the game, the third-ranked Florida Gators were either at rock bottom or within touching distance. This was about as bad as it gets. If you thought it was bad at Vanderbilt and maybe even a little worse at LSU, then nothing could have prepared you for a scoreboard that read Tennessee 58, Florida 31.
Judging by what we saw in those first 24 minutes of play, there was nothing in Florida’s demeanor to indicate that this would be anything other than total humiliation by the time the clock reached 0:00 but something happened. Call it the lights going on if you will or maybe you want to call it drawing a line in the sand and saying no more.
But something happened. Something very good happened because for the first time since the second half of the Alabama game the Florida Gators played with that same reckless abandon that they played with earlier in the season when they were not only ranked number one in the nation, but they were playing like it.
Oh, Florida lost the game, 86-76, and that’s nothing to be happy about but the way the Gators responded in the final 15 minutes of the game says there is hope that whatever edge it is the Gators lost a few games ago is on the verge of a rebirth.
They could have rolled over and died. They could have packed it in and said, this one’s over, we’ll regroup in Gainesville and then stop the bleeding against Kentucky on Senior Day Sunday.
But they didn’t.
They chose to fight back and it was the way they did it that lends hope that the team we thought was going to roll into a second straight Final Four has returned from a near death experience. From 27 points down, the Gators clawed their way back into a game that had all the earmarks of a humiliating 30-point blowout. The Gators actually made a game of it, cutting that seemingly insurmountable lead all the way down to eight points and along the way silencing a crowd of 24,047 that was going hoarse singing “Rocky Top.”
It never got any closer than eight. The Gators hit the wall once they closed the gap to 69-61 with 6:08 and they had no more legs the rest of the way. It was a struggle to keep the game at a mere 10 points the rest of the way but they should have been gassed the way they poured it on in that stretch of ten minutes when they played the kind of basketball we’ve come to expect from this team. What a contrast it was to watch these hustling Gators, gambling and scrambling all over the court to try to get back into the game after giving up way too much for 24 minutes largely due to their lethargic, uninspired play. It made you wonder who were those guys in blue uniforms the first 24 minutes of the game?
The Gators of the 10-minute stretch when 27 points was chiseled down to eight are the Gators of old. Those are the Gators that can will themselves to win. Those are the Gators that dictate play and do whatever it takes to win a game. They play defense. They run the floor. They look out for each other. The ball moves. The defense never rests.
In the first half, the defense not only rested, it had narcolepsy. The Gators gave up 51 points including a run of 17 straight that was probably the worst stretch of basketball Florida has played this season. It went from a 17-16 Florida lead to a 33-17 deficit in five and a half minutes. The Vols are the kind of team that can put up points in bunches with their arsenal of three-point bombers, but only six of the points on that run came from the stripe. Most of the damage was done inside against flat-footed Gators that either couldn’t find their man or didn’t care to respond when someone went blowing by them.
And it only got worse.
The 51-31 halftime deficit was 58-31 before Corey Brewer stopped the bleeding with a layup and Lee Humphrey followed with a pull-up three-pointer on the break. Those were Florida’s first real signs of life in a long time. That 5-0 run was the most points Florida had scored consecutively since the 14:49 mark in the first half.
It was after the Vols swelled the lead back to 25 (65-40) that the real awakening took place and it started with the play of the one Gator whose inactivity and lack of production has been the greatest dilemma during this mini-slump that has taken the Gators from a 24-2 team ranked number one to a 25-5 team that is going to have to fight hard to maintain a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Joakim Noah returned to the living on both ends of the floor. The same Joakim Noah that for the fourth straight game had a shot blocked by a shorter player earlier in the game, found his legs, found his energy and found the passion deep within once again.
When Noah plays with energy and passion his teammates feed and thrive and Florida becomes a formidable basketball team, capable of beating anyone in the country. When Noah is coming up with loose balls, fighting for a rebound and roaring down the court to finish the break with a dunk, the Gators are as good a team as you’re going to find. Noah had nothing in the tank for almost 30 minutes. Then suddenly he had it and the Gators were transformed from a team being measured for a coffin to a team that was very much alive.
Noah scored eight points on a 14-2 Florida run that served notice that the Gators were alive and well again as they narrowed the margin to 67-54. That was followed by an 8-2 Florida run that cut the gap to 69-61 with 6:08 left in the game.
From that point on, the Gators ran out of steam and were forced to foul. Over the final 11:42 of the game, those same Gators that allowed the Vols to hit 26 of 40 shots clamped down. Those same Vols that scored 30 points in the paint in the first half went 3-10 the rest of the way, scoring enough points from the foul line to preserve the win.
Over that ten minute stretch when the Gators turned certain humiliation into a mild form of redemption, the Vols managed just six shots from the field because Florida’s defense bore a strong resemblance to the defense that has been smothering opponents most of the season. The Gators blocked shots. They got into the passing lanes. They contested every shot. They blocked out and got rebounds.
Florida lost its second straight game and fell to 25-5, but maybe, just maybe, the Gators rediscovered the energy and passion that they will need to carry them the rest of the way. Last year’s wakeup call was an overtime road loss to Alabama in which the defense took a powder. After that loss, Florida went 11-0 the rest of the way and won the national championship. Maybe this year’s wakeup call will be what happened in those first 24 minutes in Knoxville.
The Gators that cut 19 points off a 27-point Tennessee lead are the Gators that need to show up Sunday against Kentucky. If they do, then it might be a sign that the mini-slump is officially over.
GAME NOTES: Al Horford turned in another outstanding performance. He scored 17 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked four shots … Noah had 11 rebounds to go with his eight points … Chris Richard had his third straight double figures game off the bench with 12 points. Richard was 4-6 from the field. He’s hit 26 of his last 33 shots … The Gators had only 13 assists but turned the ball over 20 times. Tennessee scored 28 points off Florida’s turnovers … Humphrey hit three three-pointers, a sign that maybe his slump is about to end … The Gators outrebounded Tennessee 36-25 but 17 of the Vols’ rebounds were offensive … Horford now has 986 career points. Humphrey scored nine points and now has 965 points in his Florida career … Tennessee shot 66.7 percent in the first half and 58 percent for the game … The Vols were 5-9 from the three-point stripe in the first half, just 2-8 in the second.