Florida didn't play well except for the final four minutes of regulation when they put together a brilliant rally to overcome an eight-point lead and send the game to overtime. Florida trailed by as many as 10 in the second half. The Gators were unable to find any kind of offensive consistency, allowing the Volunteers to take control of the game behind the brilliant three-point shooting of freshman Chris Lofton, who finished the game with 22 points that included a 6-10 effort from three-point range.
"He wasn't highly recruited at all," said Tennessee Coach Buzz Peterson. "He was a high school quarterback up in Maysville, Kentucky, and not a highly recruited basketball player. We saw him when we went to see someone else. He didn't have any offers, but we thought he was worth a chance. He's got a great shot, doesn't he?"
Lofton's hot shooting overshadowed a poor shooting night by Anthony Roberson, Florida's junior point guard, coming off consecutive 30-point games, the first time that's been done at UF in 35 years. Roberson finished the game with 26 points, but he had long spells when he couldn't buy a basket.
After missing seven straight shots in the second half, Roberson came alive in the final 3:22 of the game, taking Florida's offense on his back to will the Gators back into the game. He scored eight of the Gators' final 11 points of the game. He started the rally with a three and it was his 28-footer with 7.8 seconds remaining in regulation that sent the game into overtime.
Roberson's 26-point effort required 26 shots, 18 from three-point range where he connected only five times.
"We were an unbalanced team offensively," lamented Donovan, who noted that Roberson took 26 shots while senior center David Lee (11 points, 13 rebounds) only got three. "This was a game where they were doubling on David and David was not going to get a high volume of shots," said Donovan. "Yet when you look down at the stat sheet and you see that David only got three shots, you know our balance was not good at all."
It was balance that allowed the Gators to win their first three SEC games, achieved without the presence of Matt Walsh, one of the Gators' top scorers, out with torn ligaments in his ankle. In Walsh's absence, the Gators did a good job of moving the ball inside first, then back outside for open looks for Roberson. Tuesday night, the Gators didn't get the ball inside very much and even with Walsh back for limited minutes, there weren't enough open looks from the outside.
"When we've shared the ball, we've made the game easy for one another," said Donovan. "Tonight we were a one-dimensional one-on-one team that tried to score in a very short period of time instead of running offense."
But it wasn't just the offense that suffered. Defensively, there were breakdowns far too often along the perimeter. Florida outrebounded the Volunteers 42-30 and the Gators got 15 offensive rebounds to only six for UT, but that kind of dominance couldn't help Florida overcome the defensive lapses that allowed Tennessee to get too many open looks for Lofton and Scooter McFadgon (23 points) on the perimeter. Brandon Crump chipped in with 18 points for Tennessee.
The defensive breakdowns were never more evident than in the second half when the Vols made an 11-0 run to race out to a 55-45 lead with 8:04 remaining in the game. Lofton nailed a three to get things started on the run that concluded with a breakaway dunk by Crump, followed by a pair of free throws then a follow by Andre Patterson.
"I question whether we did a good enough job tonight from a scouting report standpoint in terms of getting across their personnel and what we needed to do to stop them," said Donovan. "I don't blame our guys. I blame our staff for not doing a good job of articulating what we needed to do against Lofton and McFadgon. I"ve always been a big believer that when you've covered stuff and guys don't do a good enough job that's the responsibility of the coaching staff. We must not have done a good enough job of getting that across to our guys."
But the defense did perk up in the final minutes when the Gators fought their way back into the game and it was freshmen leading the way. Corey Brewer (seven points, two steals and four assists) got a pair of deflections. Al Horford got a critical block of a shot by Crump. Taurean Green (eight points, three assists) got a steal, was fouled immediately and then he hit both free throws with 27.8 seconds remaining to close Florida within one.
After Roberson nailed his big three-pointer to tie the game at 70-70, Brewer came through with smothering defense on McFadgon to prevent a clean look for a final shot by Tennessee.
"We extended the length of the game in regulation," said Donovan. "We shortened the overtime with some of the decisions we made, and that was the thing that was tough here. We made some bad choices. I felt the last three minutes in the game [regulation] we were really good."
In overtime, Lofton connected for two more three-pointers to get Tennessee jump started. Florida tied the game at 76-76 on a Brewer steal and layup, but that was as close as the Gators would get. Florida couldn't buy a basket the rest of the way.
"They came out here, they outplayed us," said Horford, who only scored three points but had 13 rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal. "They played harder than us. It's their victory. I felt we played hard. I just think they were better than us down the stretch. They outplayed us at the end."
Walsh, who was expected to be out another two weeks minimum, shocked the O-Dome crowd by playing 13 minutes. He hit a couple of threes in the first half plus contributed a pair of nifty assists to get baskets for freshman center Joakim Noah (nine points, two rebounds, one blocked shot).
"My ankle feels great and I've been practicing the last two days full speed," said Walsh, the 6-6 junior who missed the last four games. Walsh tore the three major ligaments in his ankle and was expected to be out for six weeks, but he proved to be a fast healer. Donovan got Walsh a few minutes to help him get back into a game rhythm and to jump start the team.
"I wanted to play him because we have a week before our next game and he needed to get his feet wet a little bit," said Donovan.
But Walsh's help wasn't enough. Donovan shook his head, weary from a fourth loss, three of which were very winnable games.
"Enough of the learning experiences," said Donovan. "At some point there has to come a time when you have to understand okay this is how we win and this is what causes us to lose."
Billy Donovan and his staff have a week to see if this team can figure that out. The Gators will be at home next Tuesday against Georgia in a televised game.