The Gators' first-half performance approached perfection. They shot 58 percent from the field (17 of 29), 50 percent from 3-point range (5 of 10) and killed Tennessee 26-6 on the backboards. Six-foot-10, 245-pound Al Horford dominated with 15 points and 6 rebounds in those first 20 minutes.
To their credit, the Vols outscored Florida 54-44 after intermission and nearly got back in the game on a few occasions. A Ramar Smith dunk whittled the gap to 16 points (68-52) with 9:55 to go but Joakim Noah hit a couple of free throws and Taurean Green nailed a 3 to blunt that rally.
Tennessee closed to 14 points (79-65) on a Dane Bradshaw 3 with 5:45 remaining but Corey Brewer hit a free throw, Horford hit two, then Noah made a follow dunk off a missed free throw to put the game on ice.
Horford finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds to pace the Gators, who stand 21-2 overall and 8-0 in conference play after winning their 14th game in a row. They are 16-0 at home since losing to Tennessee last February. Noah chipped in 19 points, Green 18 and Brewer 12.
Freshman Wayne Chism hit 7 of 9 from the field and led Tennessee with 19 points. JaJuan Smith had a poor night from the floor (4 of 15) but scraped together 16 points. Freshman Ramar Smith contributed 13 points and just one turnover in 26 minutes at the point.
On a positive note, the Vols hit 15 of 15 foul shots in the second half. On a negative note, they were 2 of 9 the first half and finished 17 of 24. Tennessee shot a respectable 44 percent from the field and 36.8 percent (7 of 19) from 3-point range.
Florida was simply too good on this day, however. The Gators hit 55.6 percent from the floor (30 of 54) and won the backboard battle 43-26, thanks to 15 offensive rebounds.
With Lofton missing a fourth consecutive game due to a sprained ankle and Duke Crews slowed by a stomach virus, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl knew his team was vulnerable. He also knew Florida would be looking for redemption after losing to UT twice last year.
"I knew Florida's play was going to be tremendously elevated," Pearl said on his post-game radio show. "And they played great. But we allowed their elevated play to bother us.… We got rattled, and it was halftime before I could settle them down.
"No excuses. We just didn't handle Florida's elevated play. To get beat on the boards like we did, it got really disheartening."
Tennessee played a pretty good game defensively, causing Florida to finish with more turnovers (15) than assists (14) for only the third time this season. The two previous times that happened – vs. Kansas and Florida State – the Gators lost.
Basically, the Vols' defensive game plan was to try and double-team Horford and Noah down low, then hope the Gators didn't make their outside shots. Unfortunately for Tennessee, Florida foiled this plan by draining 9 of 19 from beyond the arc.
"We have to leave (shooters) a little bit more because we're so undersized," Pearl said. "It seemed like every time we left a shooter, he knocked it down."
Tennessee, a loser in six of its last eight games, will play its next three at home, starting with a 9 p.m. Tuesday tip-off against LSU. There's a good chance Lofton will be available for that game, which is to be televised by ESPN.