Florida battled all the way to the end but ultimately fell to a versatile Tennessee squad lead by player of the year candidate Grant Williams. The 78-67 outcome in favor of the Volunteers doesn’t tell the entire story as the game was within 2 points with less than 2 minutes on the clock but a quick string of buckets from Tennessee stretched the lead to double digits. Grant Williams, who also lead the way in taunting the Rowdy Reptiles with the Gator chomp after time ran out, was incredible for the Volunteers with 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks while KeVaughn Allen lead the Gators with 18. Florida had a great opportunity to change the tempo of the game down 2 late when Keith Stone came up with a steal out of the Gators’ press but a quick 3-point shot from Noah Locke (who was 4-9 from range on the night) spilled out. Following that, a blown defensive assignment from Dontay Bassett lead to a Volunteer 3-pointer that put the Gators in a deep hole in which they couldn’t climb out of. The Gators now head to Mississippi State for another tough matchup.
Both teams were hot from behind the arc with Tennessee going 9-23 (39%) while the Gators went 12-32 (38%). Tennessee isn’t a great shooting team and this number was solidly better than their season average and that was really what swung the game in their favor. If the Gators keep shooting 38% on 32 attempts per game they are going to win a lot of games, so this is an encouraging number.
One Gator had a particularly rough game and that was freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard. Going 1-10 from the field he missed two wide-open layups and got savagely blocked on a few others, and his jump shots weren’t falling either. After a hot shooting start to the season he has really regressed to something more like what we expected from a freshman and that will be an interesting thing to follow moving forward. He did pass the ball well at times with 5 assists though he had 3 turnovers that were all significant errors in judgment. The Gators have been leaning heavily on Nembhard this season and it’s a lot to ask from a freshman so sometimes he’s going to have games like this.
With Tennessee being such a physical team that loves to live off the offensive glass, it was a decent feat that the Gators were only -6 in rebounding. Tennessee did get some particularly big offensive rebounds late in the second half but generally speaking the Gators fought for every ball and didn’t make rebounding a major storyline. Keyontae Johnson fought particularly hard for his 5 rebounds and Kevarrius Hayes, who was excellent defensively all night, also grinded for every one of his 7 boards.
Tennessee is an excellent basketball team that I think will be competing for a National Championship. The way that Florida hung with them for so much of the game showed a team that is progressing and improving as this season goes on. If the Gators play like they did tonight they are going to win a lot of games in the SEC this year and will be ready for the intensity of postseason play. This game was far closer than the score indicated and I am generally pleased with how the Gators played. If Nembhard hits a few of his blown layups or the team comes up with one more rebound this game could have ended differently and that’s just the way basketball works. The Gators will have a chance for retribution against the Volunteers on February 9 in Knoxville.