Gators use strong second half for road win

The senior leadership has given No. 3 Florida a boost down the stretch of games this season. After struggling to put games away and not winning a game last season with a single-digit outcome, the Gators are a different team in those situations this year. The experience showed itself again on Tuesday in Knoxville, as Florida pulled away late to secure a 67-58 win to stay perfect in conference play.

"I'm so proud of our guys," Florida coach Billy Donovan said on postgame radio. "When you play on the road against a good team, you're going to have to go through moments where you're teetering. There were several moments tonight where we were teetering. I was just really proud of the way we battled."

Tuesday meant more than a normal Southeastern Conference road game to the four seniors. The Gators came into Tuesday with losses in their trips to Knoxville during the last two seasons, and the 2011 win when the current senior class played as freshmen seemed like a distant memory coming into the week.

"We lived through the struggles," Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin said of his team's troubles in Knoxville. "We haven't won here since our freshmen year. We really wanted this win. We wanted it really bad."

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae hit a jumper to tie the game at 44 with 15 minutes remaining, and that's when the Gators took control. Over the final 15 minutes, the Gators outscored Tennessee 23-14 when it counted the most.

After Jarnell Stokes completed a three-point play to cut the Gators' lead to one with 4:32 remaining, Florida took control and outscored the Volunteers 12-4 the rest of the way.

The big blow came on back-to-back possessions. After Jeronne Maymon turned the ball over to start a fast break, Michael Frazier stretched the lead to four points with a three-pointer. Stokes followed with a missed jumper, and after Donovan called a 30-second timeout, Scottie Wilbekin hit a three-pointer just before the shot clock expired to get Florida a seven-point lead with 2:24 remaining.

"(Frazier) made that huge three," Donovan said. "Scottie's three at the end of the shot clock was big. Our guys battled and fought all the way through."

Wilbekin ended with a career-high 21 points, six assists and zero turnovers in 35 minutes played.

"What great heart by Scottie with the way he played and what he did," Donovan said.

The Gators felt good about the game at halftime. Florida went into the locker room trailing by one point, but Tennessee was shooting 62 percent compared to just 36 percent for the Gators. The Volunteers were hitting tough, contested shots that Donovan didn't expect to continue, and it didn't, as Tennessee shot just 29 percent in the second half.

The Gators also delivered a physical blow in the paint. Tennessee dominated the glass, despite a blowout loss, during the first matchup in Gainesville. On Tuesday, Florida outrebounded the Volunteers 39-32, including 18 offensive rebounds for the Gators.

"Our guys took it as a challenge to go up there and rebound."

Florida doesn't get a break. The Gators will travel to Kentucky on Saturday night to play a primetime game on ESPN at 9 p.m.


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