Florida led 8-7 in the opening minutes against Tennessee, but Will Yeguete fumbled a pass and turned it over as Tennessee sprinted up the floor in transition.
Yeguete turned on a dime and sprinted in pursuit, launching up to drive Jarnell Stokes’ layup attempt into the glass as the crowd of 12,249 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center roared to life.
Seconds later, the unbridled roar had turned into a deathly silence.
Athletic trainers and coach Billy Donovan rushed onto the court to help Yeguete, who had crashed headfirst into the stanchion beneath the basket. On his knees and holding his right eye, Yeguete slowly rolled over onto his back.
He was unconscious by the time Donovan got to his side and knelt down as the blood streamed from a cut just above his right eye.
“I didn’t see the play,” Donovan said. “He wasn’t even conscious. He like wasn’t even awake when I was over there.”
As Donovan and the trainers looked over the sophomore forward, the team gathered in front of the bench and looked on, anxiously waiting for the team’s defensive star to get up.
The hushed silence turned into somber whispers as Yeguete stirred and trainers quickly pressed white towels to his forehead.
“He didn’t even know where he was at,” Donovan said. “Then when he rolled over, he had a lot of blood coming out of his eye, a cut above his eye.”
Finally, Yeguete got to his feet and stood up, wobbling as two trainers got underneath each shoulder to escort him to the locker room to applause from the crowd.
But the damage was done.
The team’s confidence was shattered and Florida (19-6, 7-3 SEC) stumbled to its first back-to-back losses since the 2009-10 season as Tennessee (13-12, 5-5 SEC) muscled its way to a 75-70 win over the stunned Gators.
Yeguete didn’t return to the game after suffering a concussion and getting 8-10 stitches just above his right eye, and the Volunteers took full advantage of the Gators’ lack of depth inside.
Tennessee worked its way to a 36-30 rebounding advantage and held sophomore center Patric Young to just eight rebounds. Young was forced to play a season-high 36 minutes in regulation and finished with just seven points and eight rebounds.
“Our guys are not hardened enough right now,” Donovan said after the game. “I think that these are the kind of experiences where you get kind of hardened a little bit. Our team needs to be hardened a little bit. We need to be more battle-tested, battle-weary.”
After suffering a 20-point road loss to Kentucky on Tuesday, Florida never responded after Yeguete went to the locker room. Defensive rotations were slow and costly turnovers kept the Gators from regaining the momentum.
Within two minutes of Yeguete’s injury, Tennessee took the lead and never relinquished it. The Volunteers finished shooting 48.0 percent from the floor and 45.5 percent from three. Florida shot 42.6 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent from three.
“You can overcome shooting 43 percent, 36 percent,” Donovan said. “But again, it’s our numbers again on the defensive end, it’s (giving up) 48 percent on our home floor, it’s (giving up) 45, 46 percent from three. They defended us better than we defended them.”
While Yeguete’s injury and a short bench – guard Mike Rosario missed the game with a hip pointer and forward Cody Larson missed the game with an illness – were partly to blame, Florida has given its last few opponents plenty of open looks.
The Gators have also been outrebounded in six of their last nine league games.
“We weren’t focused mentally,” freshman guard Brad Beal said. “It was real tough, especially when Will went out. We were undersized, but at the same time we really have to fight through that.”
Yeguete is out indefinitely with his concussion, and Florida will have to regroup quickly if it hopes to keep itself in the top third of the SEC with four of its next five games on the road.
Donovan said Yeguete is doubtful to play against Alabama on Tuesday when the Gators travel to Tuscaloosa for a 7 p.m. tilt.
‘We need Will,” junior shooting guard Kenny Boynton said. “It showed tonight. We need Will. We need rebounds.”