The final score of Saturday night’s game between the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers does not come close to telling the real story.
But it does tell the story of the final minutes. After playing tough with one of the best teams in the country for a majority of the night, the Gators once again let focus slip away late and couldn’t close things out.
The Vols got out to a six-point lead early and looked like they may be able to dominate the game had things kept going in that direction. Momentum shifted Florida’s way when KeVaughn Allen made his second three-pointer in just over a minute and got to the foul line for a four-point play.
A couple possessions later, Keyontae Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound and made a fantastic play under the basket to tie the game at 17 all.
The Gators had their first chance to take the lead since the opening play of the game as Kevarrius Hayes went to the line after a technical foul on Tennessee. He missed both of his shots, but Andrew Nembhard found Allen on the following inbounds pass and he drained another triple.
After two straight Tennessee turnovers, Noah Locke kept the offensive rhythm going with another three at the end of the shot clock to make it 23-17 at the 10-minute mark of the first half.
The Vols brought it back within a point with just under five minutes remaining in the half, but the Gators were able to hold them off and took a 38-35 lead to halftime.
While Florida had been playing well, it knew it would have to stay that way or better for the rest of the game to have a chance.
But less than four minutes into the half, Tennessee had tied the game. And just 14 seconds later, it was back in the lead and on an 8-0 run.
A few minutes after that, five straight points from Hayes tied it back up and a clutch three from Allen put the Gators back on top 56-53 with 8:16 remaining.
The Vols took a timeout to regroup, and a freshman foul by Johnson on the possession that followed sent Jordan Bowden to the line for three free throws.
He made all three, and that was the start to his takeover. For two minutes, it was Bowden versus Florida as he scored 12 straight points to give Tennessee what would ultimately be the final lead change of the game with 5:36 to go.
Locke got fouled with the Vols leading by four at the 1:25 mark, and he converted to make it a two-point game once again.
Keith Stone came up with a steal on defense, but Locke couldn’t get a three-pointer to go. Admiral Schofield could, and did, get his to go on the other end, making it 72-67 with 44 seconds on the clock.
Again, the Gators tried for a deep ball, but Jalen Hudson missed, forcing them to have to foul. Tennessee made its free throws, and then a couple of careless turnovers by Florida made for a few more cheap points in the final 20 seconds and ultimately a 78-67 final.
“I feel like we’ve gotta be more focused down the stretch,” said Locke. “It’s happened to us the last three games. We’ve gotta be more locked in. We can’t let those types of things happen.”
Another key in the game was rebounding. The Vols outrebounded the Gators 36-28, and the 10 offensive boards were killers.
Two different times in the second half, Tennessee came down with multiple offensive rebounds on a single possession, and both times it came away with points from Grant Williams (who finished with 20).
That is not a great recipe for success when playing the No. 3 team in the nation, and it comes down to a lack of discipline.
“It’s not just our bigs,” said head coach Mike White. “I looked out there a couple times and our bigs are in dogfights with those guys, and they’re grown men in their front court. Sometimes we’ve got guards just watching. If you don’t have five in the fight, you’re not going to come out with a really good win.”
While there were some positives to take away, such as Allen scoring 18 and Locke scoring 16 as the two combined for 9 three-pointers, the Gators didn’t do enough. White doesn’t want his team to see this as a moral victory.
With the loss, Florida drops to 1-2 in conference play, and things won’t get any easier with two SEC road tests coming up next week.
“We’ve got good guys that will continue to work and stay together,” White said. “But if we don’t get more disciplined, more mentally tough, pay closer attention to detail relative to scouting and our offensive and defensive rules, this is going to happen a bunch more.”