GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - There was a time when last season’s Florida Gators wouldn’t have had the fight to dig themselves out of the hole they were in during Saturday’s game against visiting Tennessee.
That could be a huge difference for No. 24 Florida in its effort to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.
After 13 lead changes and six ties, the Gators finally got rolling against the Volunteers. With a flurry of 3-pointers in the second half by sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen and senior forward Justin Leon, Florida won 83-70 before a sold-out crowd of 10,843.
Florida (12-3, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) pulled away from a 56-all tie with 8:57 left when Allen connected on three of his four second-half 3s in a span of 3:13. He went on to score 23 points and added five rebounds and four steals.
Leon had 19 points and made two 3-pointers early in the second half that helped to erase the Vols’ 33-32 halftime lead. Tennessee (8-7, 1-2) badgered Florida with aggressive defense, smart shots and tenaciousness on the boards in the first half despite being outsized almost all the way across the board.
The Vols led by as many as six in the first half as forward Admiral Schofield (18 points, 10 rebounds for his first career double-double) and guard Jordan Bowden (15 points, three steals) provided a strong inside-out combination that frustrated Florida into nine first-half turnovers and a .375 shooting percentage.
Worse for the Gators, their height advantage was negated when centers John Egbunu and Kevarrious Hayes got into foul trouble.
A calm halftime talk by coach Mike White and an offense that came out and made 10 of 11 shots to start the second half turned the game around for Florida.
“We’ve grown,” said White, in his second season since taking over for Billy Donovan. “Last year, we did not respond in a hard-fought game. We found a way.”
Leon said White didn’t yell and scream about Florida’s first-half turnovers.
“But it was emphasized,” he said. “I don’t think we would have won a game like this last year.”
Tennessee finished with 19 turnovers and faded after Schofield and another forward, Grant Williams, fouled out late in the game.
“They had depth, we didn’t,” coach Rick Barnes said. “We’ll learn from it. I like my team a lot. We’ve got a group of guys that are going to battle.”
Schofield said the Vols didn’t have a counter left in the second half.
“We wanted to make a statement on the road against a Top 25 team and in the second half we just couldn’t punch them back,” he said.
Tennessee: The Volunteers managed to get Florida’s big men in foul trouble, forcing White to go to a smaller lineup that still wasn’t as quick as theirs. However, Tennessee’s perimeter defense struggled in the second half and when Schofield fouled out, there was no one to pick up the offensive slack.
Florida: The Gators were able to bounce back from easily their worst half of basketball this season. Tennessee extended its zone to keep Allen at bay from beyond the 3-point line, and Florida was on pace to set a season high for turnovers. However, the Gators bounced back to shoot 67 percent in the second half and commit only two turnovers. That bodes well for them as they get into the meat of their SEC schedule.
Florida has won two SEC home games since last week’s poll, but both were against unranked opponents. The Gators should still hold their position or improve slightly, especially since No. 21 Virginia Tech lost two games by double-digit scores.
STAT OF THE DAY
The Gators’ nine turnovers in the first half put them on pace to surpass their season high of 17 and were uncharacteristic of a team ranked second in the SEC in turnovers per game (11.2). Florida committed only two in the second half, and the Vols failed to convert either into a basket. The Gators wound up outscoring Tennessee 25-15 off turnovers.
Tennessee: The loss to Florida was the beginning of a brutal stretch of eight games during the remainder of the month in which half are on the road, and the home games include Kentucky and Kansas State back-to-back. The combined winning percentage of Tennessee’s opponents the rest of the month (counting Florida) entering Saturday’s games was .741.
Florida: After playing three of four games in their newly renovated arena, the Gators will be on the road for four of their next six during the rest of January, beginning Tuesday at Alabama, a team that snapped an 11-game losing streak against Florida in their only meeting last season with a 61-55 victory in Gainesville. The other road games will be against South Carolina, LSU and Oklahoma.
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