Cutting it close

Most SEC basketball games are hotly contested, with the winner being the team that makes the key plays and key stops in the final minutes. That does not bode well for Tennessee heading into Saturday's game at Florida.

The Gators have excelled in late-game situations, whereas the Vols have not.

Florida has played seven SEC games decided either in overtime or by six points or less in regulation, winning six. The Gators beat Ole Miss 77-71, won 81-75 in overtime at Tennessee, lost 69-72 to South Carolina, won 45-40 at Auburn, won 104-91 in overtime at Georgia, beat Vanderbilt 65-61 and beat Kentucky 70-68.

Conversely, Tennessee has played five league games decided by six points or less, winning just two. The Vols lost 65-68 at Arkansas, lost 75-81 to Florida in overtime, beat Vanderbilt 67-64, won 59-57 at Georgia but lost 60-65 to Alabama in overtime.

What makes the Gators so tough in the clutch? Experience surely helps. Billy Donovan starts three seniors (Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus, Vernon Macklin), a junior (Erving Walker) and a sophomore (Kenny Boynton). Parsons, Tyus and Walker are in their third year as starters, Macklin and Boynton in their second.

"We've obviously got an older group of guys," Donovan said on the SEC teleconference this week, "and I'm sure that helps some. But we've been able to make some plays and get some stops and do some things that at least put us in position to win some of those games."

Whether the Gators rely on experience or clutch play, they have a remarkable knack for finding ways to win.

"A lot of those games could've gone either way, and there's been different things that happened in some of these situations," Donovan noted. "Certainly, the Tennessee game and the Georgia game we had a comfortable lead - up by six or eight points - but Georgia and Tennessee made great comebacks in regulation to get it to overtime, then we were able to make some plays in overtime. The Vanderbilt game was a game that was back and forth for all 40 minutes.

"We could've very easily lost all of those games ... and our record would look totally different right now."

Indeed. Instead of leading the SEC East at 8-2, the Gators conceivably could be 2-8.

"Being around this league as long as I have," Donovan said, "you realize how fragile it is ... the line between winning and losing, between coming close and just getting through."

Although Florida has thrived in late-game situations thus far, the Gator coach says his team can't consider that a given each time it takes the floor.

"You remind your players that, just because we've won some close games, it doesn't mean that's going to be the trend for the rest of the year," he said. "Every situation is going to be a little bit different."

That's especially true of Saturday's rematch with Tennessee. This time the Vols will have head coach Bruce Pearl (who missed the earlier game due to a suspension) on the bench. And this time, thanks to a mere 5-4 league record, the Vols' backs are against the wall.

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