and Florida struggled offensively against Tennessee, but the Gators
suffocating defense helped the come away with the victory. (Wade Payne/AP)
Through 20 minutes in Knoxville on Tuesday night, Tennessee made Florida's defense look mortal. The Volunteers shot 62.5 percent and scored 34 points in the first half, taking a one-point lead into the locker room.
It was the last time Tennessee led all night.
The Gators came out in the second half and looked like the elite defensive team they are, holding the Volunteers to 24 points on 7-of-24 from the floor while pulling away with a 67-58 win.
Florida's defensive prowess was on full display in the second half on Tuesday. Few teams in the country can win when their three leading scorers combine to make just 11 of their 34 field goal attempts, but that's exactly what the Gators did against Tennessee. Scottie Wilbekin was 5-of-17 from the floor, Michael Frazier was 4-of-10 and Casey Prather was 2-of-7. All told, Florida shot 36.2 percent, yet still managed to win going away. That's what you can do when you boast one of the best defenses in the country.
Tennessee got 20 points from Jarnell Stokes on 7-of-11 shooting and Jordan McRae nearly reached his average of 19.3 points, but it took him 16 field goal attempts to get there. Meanwhile, the Gators came away with 10 steals and forced the Volunteers into 15 turnovers.
With their first game against Kentucky on tap Saturday night, Florida has an inside track for one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Still, not all is perfect for Florida. The Gators went seven minutes without a field goal in the second half, allowing Tennessee to cut a seven-point lead down to one in the process. Florida is able to get away with that against bubble teams like Tennessee, but that won't be the case as they advance through the tournament.
This week's Bracket Watch has the Gators potentially matching up with Creighton in the Sweet 16 and Kansas in the regional final. The exact teams, however, don't really matter. The point is that only the very best are still alive come the second weekend of the tournament, and Florida has suffered through similar droughts in many games this season. The Gators have just one player, Frazier, capable of knocking down threes with regularity, a fact that has exacerbated their scoring issues. One cold spell at the wrong time of the tournament could cut short what has been a great season.
That's why Saturday's game in Lexington is the most important of the season for Florida. Kentucky features the seventh-best offense in terms of adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com, and the Gators likely won't simply be able to defensively suffocate the Wildcats
into submission. Florida has scored 70 points only four times in conference play this year, though they haven't needed more than 65 most nights. That may not be the case on Saturday night.