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Dorian Finney-Smith, left, and MIchael Frazier apply defensive pressure for the Gators in Saturday's win over Tennessee.

Saturday March 15, 2014Final Bound: Gators Unleash Wicked Second-Half Defense on Vols

Dorian Finney-Smith, left, and MIchael Frazier apply defensive pressure for the Gators in Saturday's win over Tennessee.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

ATLANTA -- Scottie Wilbekin huddled with his teammates on the carpeted runway that paved the path from the Florida locker room to the Georgia Dome basketball court.

His team was trailing red-hot Tennessee by seven points Saturday in the semifinal round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but there was no need to panic.

Not then. Not with this bunch.

“We know what it takes to win in the second half,” Wilbekin told the rest of his UF teammates. “As long as we come out and play like we know we can, we’ll be fine.”

During the ensuing 20 minutes, the Volunteers found it very difficult to pad that seven-point edge.

That’s because they only scored 14 points the rest of the game.

Center Patric Young had 16 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Wilbekin had 14 points and four steals, and forward Casey Prather tallied 12 points and four assists, yet it was the defense that top-ranked Florida blindsided Tennessee with out of the halftime locker room that set in motion a 56-49 victory Saturday in front 20,330.

The win was UF’s 25th straight and moved the Gators (31-2) into Sunday’s tournament championship game against Kentucky (24-9), which defeated Georgia 70-58 in the other semifinal. Florida, just a week removed from a 19-point beating of UK in Gainesville, will try to win its first SEC Tournament crown since 2007 and just the fourth in program history.

“We have a chance to win a championship,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said. “That’s always exciting.”

For the chance to do so, the Gators needed to rally from their first double-digit deficit since losing at Wisconsin on Nov. 12 -- that would be 124 days ago -- and summon the junkyard-dog defensive mentality that gave SEC teams fits throughout UF’s historic unbeaten 18-game regular-season rampage.

“I’d like to see us play 40 minutes,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “We haven’t done that here.”

On Friday, UF and Missouri were tied at halftime of their quarterfinal duel before the Gators bludgeoned the Tigers with defense and 3-point shooting on the way to a 72-49 win.

Saturday was more of the same, minus the long balls.

Keep in mind, Tennessee was the league’s hottest team outside the Sunshine State coming in, having won five in a row by averaging nearly 73 points per game and an average victory margin of better than 23.

When this one was over -- and it was a grind to get there -- the Vols had scored their second-fewest points of the season. The only game worse? The 41 UT scored in Gainesville on Jan. 25.

“They’re the best team in the country,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I applaud the way they defend.”

The Vols (21-11), who figure to rate an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament next week, led 35-25 after guard Jordan McRae (15 points, 3 rebounds) hit a baseline jumper with just over a minute to go in the first half. That double-digit margin looked pretty safe as the halftime clock wound down, until Wilbekin did his SEC Player of the Year thing and swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key to end the period.

The lead was seven.

In the halftime locker room, for the second day in a row, Donovan railed at his team about taking a better fight to the opponent.

“He talked about how teams are going to play their hardest against us -- and we know that,” senior forward Will Yeguete said. “We didn’t compete our best in the first half, but we had to put that behind us.”

Added Young: “Our number one key was not to panic. Just readjust and change our focus.”

Wilbekin simplified things even more.

“We just had to play harder,” he said. “We didn’t really switch up anything. We just tried to go into an extra gear and turn it up a little bit.”

It happened quickly.

Florida scored 10 of the first 12 second-half points to go up 38-37 barely five minutes in. To the Vols’ credit, they didn’t flinch. Instead, UT scored three straight field goals to go up again by five, 43-38, with just over 12 minutes remaining and had a little bounce to its collective step.

Tennessee scored six points the rest of the game.

The last of them came on a McRae 3-pointer with 2:44 left to tie the game at 49.

Young’s left-handed baby hook at 2:19 pushed the Gators in front; to stay, as it turned out. UF scored the game’s final seven points. UT last four possessions: two turnovers, two missed 3-pointers.

“We were really locked in on the defensive side,” Young said in the understatement of the afternoon. “I could just feel like an inner sense that that they were going to have a difficult time scoring.”

Here’s how difficult: Tennessee shot just 5-for-20 in the second half, made only one 3-pointer and turned the ball over 11 times. The Vols also were called for two technical fouls, including one against power forward Jeronne Maymon (10 points, 9 rebounds) that fouled him out with just under five minutes left in a tie game.

“They were getting frustrated,” Yeguete said.

Not scoring can do that to a team.

The Gators, meanwhile, aren’t without frustrations of their own. Especially a coach who has seen his team basically flip a switch and fire up the engine in a bunch of second halves this season.

Then again, they certainly pick the right half to flip it.

 

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