The improvements came from the veterans. Billy Donovan was disappointed with their production on Friday against Missouri, but they came back and played dominant defense in the second half. The Florida bench wasn't productive and caused many of the defensive breakdowns. To avoid them, Donovan went back to his seniors and shortened the bench.
"We shortened the bench a little bit," Donovan said on the postgame radio show. "We played with a veteran group out there."
And the starters responded. Will Yeguete, who battled foul trouble, was the only starter to play under 30 minutes. The backcourt locked down on defense, combining for eight steals between Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin, one more than Tennessee's entire team.
The group pulled together down the stretch, allowing six total points over the final 12:15 of play.
"We endured it the first half and had to get things fixed," Patric Young said. "We just kept fighting and kept fighting, and we got it done. The number one key is to not panic. We adjust and refocus. Coach definitely gets on us at halftime to say that we can't keep playing for only 20 minutes and expect to flip a switch. But we've been down before. Us four seniors have a whole lot of experience. We were locked in, focused on one possession at a time."
The second-half run wasn't a surprise to those around the team. They've been seeing it all year and relying on the veterans to make the big plays.
"It's so fun to watch this team respond," Florida assistant John Pelphrey said. "The defense was just amazing in the second half. They scored 14 points in a high major, big time end of the year March Madness type of game. It was a phenomenal job by our guys from a discipline and effort standpoint."
For the second straight game, the Gators looked sluggish in the first half. Florida fell behind 35-28 at halftime, closer than it should've been because of Scottie Wilbekin's long distance three-pointer that fell just before halftime. The shots weren't falling when Florida managed to find open ones, and the usually dominant defense started to show holes.
28 points were the same amount the Gators scored in the second half, but it looked much crisper as the Florida veterans played with a renewed energy. The first-half problems continued to be an issue, despite the Gators pushing their winning streak to 25 games.
"We turned into reluctant passers," Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey said. "We were going too far and getting held up. That's not usually our deal. We're usually good at passing it and were better in the second half."
The Gators allowed Missouri and Tennessee to hang in the game and even lead in the first half. Florida showed enough to overcome it in Atlanta, but that might not always be in the case. When Florida gets into the NCAA Tournament and faces tougher opposition, it might not have a chance to overcome a deficit.
"We need to fix that," Young said. "We're going to be in a situation where we won't be able to recover. Hopefully we can come out a lot better on Sunday."
Florida slowed itself in the first half from the free throw line. The Gators opened the game 1-7 from the line before hitting nine of its final 10 free throws down the stretch. The free throws were a problem in the early part of the season but have corrected themselves in the second half of the year.
The issues crept up again on Saturday.
"There's been some games we've shot the ball very well," Donovan said. "No team is perfect, we certainly aren't. There's always areas we can get better at, and I certainly think free throwing shooting is an area we can better on. Those guys put time on their own and we put time in practice. Hopefully it'll be an area we can get better at because we are capable of doing it."
The Gators advanced to the SEC Tournament title game on Sunday at 3 p.m. After relying on the starters for heavy minutes on Saturday, the Florida bench has to be ready for bigger minutes on Sunday.
"Tomorrow, we're going to have to use more of our bench and get more productivity out of our bench. Not necessarily scoring."