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Gators Struggle in Second Half Without Frontcourt Depth; Fall to Tennessee 78-71

Despite a strong start on the road, the Gators stall without depth in the backcourt against the Tennessee Volunteers.

Florida deviated from the norm against the No. 18 Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville.

Instead of excelling with intensity defensively, the Gators would produce electricity offensively early on.

Coming into the contest at 12-7 (3-4 SEC) on the season, the Florida Gators were vying for a resumé boosting victory as the campaign for March Madness begins.

Instead, they were slapped in the face with disappointment yet again, losing to Tennessee 78-71 despite a solid first-half performance that provided promise on the road.

Following up a 2-for-24 outing beyond the arc against Ole Miss, the Gators came out of the gates hot, shooting with confidence to hit five of their first six three-point attempts. Their prowess from downtown resulted in a 15-0 run that hoisted them to a 23-10 lead.

Tyree Appleby, getting his first start since Jan. 13, was a catalyst for the Gators' early offensive success. He finished with 16 points and seven assists with ten and six in the first 20 minutes.

"I thought Tyree, in the first half, was as good as he's played in any half probably since he's been here," head coach Mike White said postgame. "Dictating tempo, decisions, quarterbacking, playing within himself, getting guys shots, has elite speed, and he did a good job."

The sweet offensive production from the first half turned sour in the final 20 minutes, allowing Tennessee to surge from behind to retake the lead.

From there, the Vols never let go.

Santiago Vestcovi dominated the scoring attack for the Volunteers, producing 23 points on 60% from the field in 28 minutes of play. Freshman guard Zakai Ziegler complemented Vestcovi with 11 points and six rebounds off the bench.

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Colin Castleton's third absence due to a shoulder injury which head coach Mike White coined as "significant," became increasingly more prominent as the contest went on. Namely, after his replacement at center, Jason Jitoboh went down after getting hit in the face nearing the end of the first half.

He failed to return to the floor.

"It changed a lot, offensively and defensively," White said. "It changed our whole approach in terms of defense."

Freshman center Tuongthach Gatkek entered the fold for considerable minutes. Although his efforts were strong, his slim frame failed to clash with the men down low for Tennessee.

Florida struggled to crash the glass as a result.

They were outrebounded by 11 and allowed 10 of Tennessee's 35 boards to come offensively, proving a plethora of second-chance points for the Volunteers.

The rocky performance in Rocky Top that, at one point early on, was shaping up to be a signature win by a unit desperately seeking a confidence booster resulted in their second straight loss on the road to a conference opponent.

The Gators move to 3-5 in SEC play on the season, an unfavorable spot considering their tough stretch of contests that lie ahead.

The Gators are scheduled to enter three more contests against ranked opponents in the remaining ten games, hosting No. 1 Auburn at home and splitting a home and home with No. 12 Kentucky.

Florida will look to avoid their second three-game losing streak of the season when they return home to take on Oklahoma State in the Big 12/SEC challenge Saturday at 4 p.m.

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