The clutch play of Wilbekin enabled Florida to close the contest on 12-4 run, turning a 55-54 lead into a 67-58 victory. After assisting Michael Frazier for a 3-pointer that bumped the lead to 58-54, the 6-foot-2 Wilbekin drained a trey of his own over 6-foot-6 Josh Richardson, widening the gap to 61-54 with 2:24 remaining. He had been 0 for 5 beyond the arc prior to that point but he made the clutch one.
"The shot he hit on Josh was real tough," Vol senior Jordan McRae said. "Josh was right there on him. He's the leader of the No. 3 team in the country, so he's expected to do things like that."
Following a foul shot by Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes, Wilbekin made five of six free throws to keep Florida comfortably ahead through the finish line. He finished with 21 points, 6 assists and 4 steals in 35 turnover-free minutes.
"I thought they (Gators) did a great job of keeping their composure, making plays in a timely fashion," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "Wilbekin controlled the tempo down the stretch of the game."
Frazier added 11 points for Florida, which stands 22-2 overall and 11-0 in SEC play after posting its 16th consecutive victory. Martin was impressed, comparing Billy Donovan's crew to Kentucky's 2012 national championship team.
"I would put them similar to the Kentucky team with Anthony Davis," the Vol coach said. "They don't have the big names, the first-round (NBA) draft picks, but they have very talented players and they do a tremendous job of playing together and feeding off each other."
Stokes led Tennessee in both points (20) and rebounds (11), posting his 14th double-double of the season and 32nd of his career. McRae added 17 points but committed 5 turnovers. Richardson chipped in 13 points. Senior post Jeronne Maymon contributed 9 rebounds, 3 blocks and 4 steals but also committed 8 of Tennessee's 15 turnovers.
|Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes puts up a shot over Florida's Patric Young at Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night.|
"I didn't think about taking him out," Martin said of Maymon. "He was playing hard. He did a tremendous job of battling, competing…. It (turnover total) was unfortunate but he played extremely hard. He's the one guy I thought was really battling around that rim."
You knew the Vols were in trouble when they shot 62.5 percent (15 of 24) from the field but still led just 34-33 at halftime. Sure enough, they cooled off and shot a chilly 29.2 percent in the second half.
In retrospect, two Vol lapses proved especially costly.
Up 34-31 with nine seconds left in the half, Tennessee had Stokes at the foul line for a chance to widen the gap. He missed the front of a one-and-one, however, then the Vols allowed Wilbekin to race downcourt and hit a four-footer at the buzzer. The four-point swing turned a potential 36-31 lead into a mere 34-33 lead.
Another wasted opportunity occurred midway through the second half. With Tennessee down 53-48, Stokes missed both ends of a two-shot foul, then Richardson missed a transition dunk. Instead of trailing by one, the Vols remained down by five.
Oddly enough, Florida won despite being out-shot 45.8 percent to 36.2 percent from the field. Even stranger: The great equalizer was the backboards. Normally dominant on the boards, Tennessee surrendered 18 offensive rebounds en route to being beaten 39-32 on the boards.
"They (Gators) won doing what we do best," Martin mused. "They battled on the glass and got the big rebounds."
Despite its struggles to score and rebound in the second half, though, Tennessee was just one point off the lead with four minutes left. Being so close to a statement win made this loss especially painful for the Vols (15-9, 6-5), who are fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid.
"It takes the wind out of us because we had a great opportunity," McRae said. "But we have a day off tomorrow, then we go back to work on Thursday…. There's no time to sit in your room and cry about it. You've got to move forward."
Richardson agreed, noting: "It's tough but Florida's a good team and they finished the game better than us."
The coach echoed those sentiments.
"It's a tough thing to deal with," Martin said, "but we've got to keep moving."
The next move is to Columbia, Mo., where the Vols play Missouri this Saturday at 4.