scored 9 points as part of a balanced Florida offensive attack. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty)
No. 1 Florida 72, No. 8 Missouri 49: Perhaps no team other than unbeaten Wichita State entered its conference tournament on a bigger run than Florida. The top-ranked Gators ventured to Atlanta riding a 23-game win streak, including 18 straight victories against SEC foes. Coach Billy Donovan's crew made it 19 straight against league opponents with a 72-49 SEC tournament quarterfinal win over 8-seed Missouri on Friday.
The Gators, who had won their last three games by an average of 21 points, looked surprisingly vulnerable early against the Tigers. Florida turned the ball over four times on its first seven possessions, and despite knocking down six of its first 10 three-point shots, UF ended the first half tied with Missouri 29-29. The Gators allowed the Tigers to close the half on a 6-0 run, including a last-second dunk by Ryan Rosburg to knot things up.
In the second half, Florida showed why it might be the only SEC team left standing on many folks' NCAA brackets next week. Scottie Wilbekin knocked down a three-pointer off an inbounds steal before a Patric Young jumper gave Florida a 45-36 lead with 9:16 to play, its largest lead to that point. The Gators' advantage ballooned to 14 from there, effectively putting the Tigers to bed.
Florida is dangerous because of its efficiency on offense (12-of-21 on three-pointers, 16 assists) as well as on defense, where it held Missouri to 36 percent from the floor and forced 14 turnovers. Defense has been the Gators' bread-and-butter this year, and that's the part of this roster that could lead it to the Final Four. Missouri, meanwhile, might not be out of the NCAA at-large picture just yet, but the Tigers fell prey to a talented Florida team at a time when they couldn't exactly afford a loss. Time will tell what Missouri's postseason future holds.
No. 4 Tennessee 59, No. 13 South Carolina 44: Jarnell Stokes had a double-double with 22 points and 15 rebounds to lead a hot Tennessee team past South Carolina on Friday.
The Gamecocks' couldn't find a rhythm against the Vols' defense, especially in the first half. UT jumped out to a 12-2 lead in the game as South Carolina's shots simply wouldn't fall. At halftime, as Tennessee held a 28-18 lead, the Gamecocks had hit only seven total shots. The second half wasn't much better for coach Frank Martin's squad, which finished the afternoon shooting 27 percent from the field, including only 4-of-16 from downtown.
Tennessee's frontcourt was too much for South Carolina to handle. Stokes and fellow starting forward Jeronne Maymon combined for 28 points and 21 rebounds. The Gamecocks' starting big men, Demetrius Henry and Mindaugas Kacinas, managed only 10 points and five boards between them. That physicality in the paint is the recipe the Vols need to hang with their next opponent, top-ranked Florida, in the SEC semifinals on Saturday.
No. 2 Kentucky 85, No. 7 LSU 67: In its quarterfinal matchup against LSU on Friday, Kentucky looked a lot like the team most expected in the preseason. The talented Wildcats -- losers of three of their past four games coming in -- used a bruising effort to down the Tigers and reach the SEC semifinals.
Kentucky took control in the first half thanks to a 23-3 run, but LSU came back firing after intermission. Andre Stringer hit a lay-up with 11:56 to play to cut the Tigers' deficit to three. But an ensuing 7-0 run by the 'Cats swelled the lead back to 10 midway through the half.
Kentucky smothered LSU on the glass with a 48-32 rebounding advantage, and the Wildcats contested the Tigers' shots all night long, swatting 11 attempts. Willie Cauley-Stein notched six blocks off the bench. But the Kentucky defense as a whole did its job in the second half by limiting LSU to 36 percent from the floor.
Few doubt the talent on coach John Calipari's roster, which makes his team's relative struggles this year even more maddening. But having that much talent means that this roster can be lethal on both ends of the floor when it's clicking on all cylinders. We saw flashes of that potential on Friday, the kind of potential that could lead to an SEC title.
No. 3 Georgia 75, No. 6 Ole Miss 73: Georgia's 61-60 regular-season win over Ole Miss earlier this season might as well have been foreshadowing. Friday's SEC Tournament matchup between the teams was just as tight. The 3-seed Bulldogs survived a quarterfinal meeting with 6-seed Ole Miss that included 17 ties, 20 lead changes, 50 fouls and 64 total free-throw attempts.
Through 39 minutes of back-and-forth basketball, Jarvis Summers -- playing with four fouls -- gave Ole Miss a 73-72 lead with a jumper with 45 seconds to play. On Georgia's ensuing possession, Charles Mann gathered a long rebound and drove for a lay-up to push his Bulldogs ahead 74-73. Rebels' sharpshooter Marshall Henderson clanked a three-point attempt on Ole Miss' next possession, and Georgia's Marcus Thornton hit a free throw to push its cushion to two points. From there, the Rebels couldn't connect on a last-second trey to win.
The wild game probably marked the end to the electric Henderson era in Oxford. The Rebels are likely to play in the NIT, but on a national scale, Henderson's last mark might be Friday's quarterfinal struggle, in which he shot 5-for-21 from the field, including an ice-cold 2-of-16 from the perimeter. Now Georgia and its solid defense will move on to face a Kentucky team in the semifinals that looked every bit as dangerous as the Wildcats can be.