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No. 1 Florida keeps SEC streak intact, moves on to tournament final

Saturday, March 15, 2014 | 6:47 p.m. CDT
Florida forward Casey Prather shoots around Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes during the second half of the semifinal round of the Southeastern Conference tournament Saturday in Atlanta. Florida won 56-49 and advanced to face Kentucky in the championship game.

ATLANTA — Even facing its biggest deficit since November, No. 1 Florida never panicked.

The Gators knew their defense would not let them down.

Florida trailed by 10 points with less than a minute left in the first half but swarmed on defense in the second and defeated Tennessee 56-49 in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament Saturday.

Patric Young scored 16 points and Scottie Wilbekin added 14, but this victory had nothing to do with what happened at the offensive end. It was all about what Tennessee faced when it had the ball after halftime.

The Volunteers made only 5-of-20 shots with 11 turnovers, and they made just one shot on 11 tries in the final 12 minutes of the game. Tennessee also committed five turnovers in that decisive stretch as Florida turned a five-point deficit into a seven-point win.

"We didn't really switch anything up," Wilbekin said. "We just tried to go into an extra gear."

Florida (31-2) extended its school-record winning streak to 25 in a row after being down 35-28 at halftime.

"This group has a resiliency and a competitiveness," coach Billy Donovan said. "We have our faults. We're not perfect. But I've never walked off the court saying, 'Wow, these guys didn't get after it, they didn't compete.'"

Tennessee (21-12) had a chance to post its most impressive win of the season. Now, its postseason fate rests in the hands of the NCAA selection committee.

The Gators, who improved to 20-0 against SEC opponents, advanced to face Kentucky in the championship game Sunday. The second-seeded Wildcats defeated Georgia 70-58, but have lost twice to Florida this season.

"I've seen a lot of teams. I've watched a lot of teams from afar," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of the Gators. "They're one of the best defensive teams in the country."

Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 15 points, and Jarnell Stokes had 13 points and seven rebounds.

A number of questionable calls marred the final minutes, including a technical on Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon for disputing that he threw a shoulder. It Maymon's fifth foul, which knocked him out of the game with more than 4 1/2 minutes remaining after he scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

Then, with just more than a minute left, there was a long break while the officials went to the replay to rule on a potential flagrant foul against Wilbekin, even though it wasn't even clear if he touched a Tennessee player while swinging his arms high.

"I think my elbow nicked his chin a little bit," Wilbekin said with a slight grin. "He did a good job of selling it."

It didn't matter at the end. The Gators defeated Tennessee for the third time this season, each one following the same plot line. The Vols held their own in the first half, only to get dominated by Florida in the second.

The cumulative second-half score in the three games was Florida 103, Tennessee 60 — including a 28-14 edge on Saturday.

Despite the loss, the Vols are confident of their NCAA chances based on one of the nation's toughest schedules and an RPI in the low 40s.

"I feel like the statement was already made before coming into this game," Stokes said.

In the first half, at least, Tennessee certainly looked worthy of a spot in the 68-team field. The Vols were the first team to lead Florida by double digits since the first of its two losses, at Wisconsin on Nov. 12.

Wilbekin cut the deficit to seven at halftime with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but Florida still went to the locker room facing its second-biggest deficit of the season at the midway point. Not that the Gators were ruffled by being in that position — it was the eighth time they had trailed at the break, and they've now come back to win six in a row.

"I told the guys at halftime, 'We've been in this situation before,'" Wilbekin said. "We know what it takes to win in the second half."


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