It’s not that this specific game Wednesday night was necessarily a must-win for Florida, but at some point very soon, something has to change if this basketball team is going to have any chance to make a postseason run this year.
In the meantime, the slide continued at Tennessee for the reeling Gators.
Unlike recent crushing setbacks, there was no second-half collapse this time, but only because Florida was never in a position of control after halftime.
No. 19 Tennessee pulled ahead late in the first half and never lost its lead the rest of the way, closing out a 62-57 win at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.
Florida (17-11, 8-7 SEC) has now lost three straight and six of its last eight conference games, extending a frustrating stretch that is threatening to undo a season that once had a lot of potential and promise.
But coach Mike White struck a mostly positive tone after the game, albeit relative to the disappointing outcome.
“I thought we played just as hard as Tennessee did tonight. We haven’t done that every night. That’s not who this team has been for Florida,” he said. “But I was proud of our physical effort. I thought we played incredibly hard to come in here and outrebound these guys, defend at the level that we did. We gave ourselves a chance.”
Tennessee (20-7, 10-5) closed the first half with an 11-1 run, holding Florida without a field goal for the final 5:15 of the opening half, to take a 27-18 lead into the break.
After that lead grew to 10 in the opening minutes after halftime, the Gators tried to reverse their recent script of second half stumbles while drawing to within 1 several times. But that’s as close as they could get it.
A Dontay Bassett layup with 11:05 left cut the Vols’ lead to 37-36, the third time in the half the Gators had made it a 1-point game, but a dunk by Jordan Bowden, a jumper from Admiral Schofield and a layup and free throw from Schofield quickly made it 44-36.
And with 5:04 left, it was back to a 10-point game at 52-42.
Florida simply didn’t have the shooting Wednesday night that it normally relies on to win.
The Gators started 3 of 19 from 3-point range before Jalen Hudson and Keith Stone hit back-to-back 3s to make it 54-48 and give the visitors some late life, but the game never got closer than 3 points over the final 4 minutes.
Chris Chiozza made a quick layup and drew a foul with 24.5 seconds remaining, but he missed the free throw to keep it at 60-57, and two free throws from Bowden on the other end effectively sealed the game.
Florida shot just 35 percent from the field for the game, 25 percent (6 of 24) from 3-point range and 56.3 percent (9 of 16) from the free throw line. The Gators did finish with a 38-36 rebounding advantage, which has not been the norm this season.
“I don’t know that we ever figured it out,” White said of the offensive struggles. “We got better looks in the second half. I thought we settled in a little bit. We knew that Tennessee would come out with incredible aggression and intensity and edge from the tip. …
“We spread the floor more in the second half and got out in transition a little bit more. I felt like our guys played with a little bit more confidence. Unfortunately, we had some open threes, which are hard to come by against Tennessee, that didn’t go down. We didn’t convert at the foul line like we needed to, and of course at the rim we continue to struggle.”
Hudson led the Gators with 13 points and 5 rebounds, Chiozza finished with 11 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds and Stone had 11 points.
But KeVaughn Allen was a non-factor again, missing the only 3 shots he attempted in 29 minutes, and Egor Koulechov struggled offensively while shooting 2-of-10 to finish with 7 points.
Allen, a preseason All-SEC pick, has been among the biggest mysteries for this team and came in averaging a career-low 11.1 points per game. He now has seven games in which he’s been held to 5 or fewer points.
Meanwhile, Grant Williams led the Vols with 23 points while Schofield chipped in 16 points and 8 boards.
Florida has just three regular-season games left to try to turn the tide and remain in the NCAA tournament picture, and none are easy.
The Gators will host first-place Auburn on Saturday night and then close at Alabama and home against Kentucky.
Something has to change in that stretch. While Wednesday might not have been one, the way things have been going, Florida is likely facing some must-win games very soon.
“We’ve got to give ourselves a chance, first and foremost, by playing with that intensity level and that attention to detail defensively, that level of physicality,” White said emphasizing the positives from the loss. “We’ve got to fly around and play together and gang rebound like we did. That puts you in position, and on top of that obviously we’ve got to convert.
“Certain nights, we’ve converted at a high level offensively and not gotten that defensive effort. It’s just been something we’ve dealt with all year. I told our guys I was proud of the effort, defensively of course. We’ve got to get to where we see that every night. Not many games left. That’ll give us a chance, and on top of that we’ve got to knock down some 3s and free throws and of course within 5 feet we’ve got to finish at a much higher rate.”