That relentless pursuit of greatness that Patric Young keeps talking about was personified with 1:30 remaining in Florida’s 67-58 Southeastern Conference win over Tennessee in Knoxville Tuesday night. With the 3rd-ranked Gators (22-2, 11-0 SEC) holding a precarious 61-55 lead, Young squeezed off a shot after an offensive rebound following a Scottie Wilbekin miss. The ball clanged off the rim but in the ensuing scramble for a rebound that was well on its way out of bounds, Young sprinted to the corner and dived between two Vols to snag the ball. In almost a single motion he flipped from his stomach to his side and passed the ball to Kasey Hill to save a possession and possibly the ball game.
That extra possession turned into a nightmare for the Vols (15-9, 6-5 SEC), who saw their upset bid go down the drain when the Gators milked another 34 seconds off the clock before Hill missed a jumper just ahead of a shot clock violation. This time the hustle play was made by Dorian Finney-Smith, who snagged the rebound and got it out to Wilbekin who was fouled. Wilbekin’s two free throws with 51.9 seconds to go in the game extended Florida’s lead to 63-55 and drained all the energy out of the crowd of 18,009 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“The play of the year was Patric Young going into a full out dive for a save to give us a new shot clock,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said in his post game remarks on the Gator Radio Network.
Wilbekin hit three more free throws and Casey Prather knocked down one in the final minute as the Gators won their 16th game in a row, one shy of the school record. In moving to 11-0 in the SEC, the Gators maintained a two-game cushion over Kentucky in the loss column of the SEC standings. Florida plays at Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC) Saturday at Rupp Arena and is guaranteed to go into next week at the top of the SEC standings.
For Florida to win the game, the Gators had to endure a couple of bad stretches, one in the first half in which they were outscored 16-4 and another in the second in which the Vols switched to a 1-3-1 defense that forced the Gators into a 5:50 scoreless drought.
The Gators got an early 10-2 lead thanks largely to the defense of Wilbekin, who harassed Tennessee’s leading scorer, Jordan McRae, into four turnovers. It wasn’t until Wilbekin took a rest with 15:38 to go in the half that McRae was able to get off a shot.
Thanks to four 3-pointers including only the fourth of the season from Will Yeguete with 9:54 to go in the half, Florida held a 22-16 lead but over the next six minutes Tennessee couldn’t miss and the Gators had troubles getting a decent shot. Florida took a 26-22 lead on a jump hook by Young with 7:28 left in the half, but that was the last time the Gators scored until Casey Prather broke 4:35 drought with an unexpected 3-ball with 2:53 to go in the half. It was the second made three of the season for Prather, who had attempted only three coming into the game.
Once Prather cut the lead to 32-29, the Gators closed out well and cut the margin to one when Wilbekin got the ball with nine seconds to go, looked for an opening and then drove to the rim, scoring on a banked floated with one second left to make it a 34-33 deficit at the half.
“The thing I was most excited about coming out of the half is we were shooting 36% to their 63% and it was a 1-point game,” Donovan said. “Those shots [Tennessee made in the first half] didn’t go down in the second half.”
Wilbekin finished the game with a career-high 21 points to go with three rebounds, six assists and four steals. Wilbekin was 10-12 from the foul line and didn’t commit a turnover.
When Tennessee sprung the 1-3-1 on the Gators, it was a 53-46 game that Florida was controlling, but over the next 5:50 the Gators went 0-5 from the field and turned the ball over three times. It wasn’t until Finney-Smith hit a couple of free throws with 4:40 left that the Gators broke the scoring drought to give the Gators a 55-51 lead.
Tennessee closed the gap to 55-54 on a conventional 3-point play by Jarnell Stokes with 4:32 to go in the game but that’s when Florida’s toughness took over. The Vols were looking to take the lead when Michael Frazier got a steal, kicked it out to Wilbekin and then got the ball back at the top of the key in transition. Frazier, who hadn’t scored in the half, stepped into his shot and drained a three to make it a 58-54 lead with 3:31 to go.
The Gators got a stop on Tennessee’s ensuing possession but the Vols seemed to have Florida’s number at the other end. The Gators couldn’t find an opening against the zone and with the shot clock all the way down to three, Wilbekin launched a contested three that went down with 2:07 remaining to make it a 61-54 game.
A little more than 30 seconds later, Young made his play to save a possession and keep the Gators unbeaten in the SEC.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” Donovan said. “When you play on the road against a good team you really have to go through some moments when you are teetering. I thought there were several moments when we were teetering.”
In those moments when the Gators were teetering, it was the defense that held things together. Even in the first half when the Vols were shooting lights out – 15-24 from the field — Florida played good defense in stretches plus the Vols hit some highly contested shots.
In the second half, however, those contested shots wouldn’t fall. The Vols were only 7-24 (29.2%) from the field in the second half. McRae, who went 4-5 from the field to start the game, was only 2-11 the rest of the way. When the Vols needed him to make shots in the second half, the shot attempts he did get were highly contested.
“McRae made one really tough shot,” Donovan said. “At the end of the game when they were going to him he couldn’t get off a shot.”
GAME NOTES: Besides Wilbekin, Frazier (11) was the only Gator in double figures … Tennessee came into the game the top rebounding team in the SEC but the Gators outrebounded the Vols, 39-32 … Florida shot only 36.2% from the field (21-58) but the Gators went 8-21 (38.1%) from the 3-point line … The Gators are now 5-0 on the road in SEC play. The other 13 teams in the league all have at least two road losses.