ATLANTA -- If you ask Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes how he feels about his team’s chances to secure a bid to this year’s NCAA tournament, he keeps it real and confident.
“I feel like the statement already was made before coming into this game,” said Stokes, who had 13 points and seven rebounds Saturday in the Vols’ 56-49 SEC tournament semifinal loss to Florida.
To Stokes, it’s an emphatic statement of, “Yes, Tennessee deserves to be in the field of 68 with our highlighter orange sneakers glistening on the dance floor.”
The 21-win Vols certainly would have all but locked up a spot with an upset of No. 1 Florida, but that didn’t happen after a furious defensive assault by the Gators in the second half. The Vols were 5-of-20 from the field in the final 20 minutes, scoring just 14 points and turning the ball over 11 times after leading by seven at halftime.
Florida totally threw Tennessee out of its rhythm in the second half as the defense clamped down, but losing forward Jeronne Maymon to an absurd technical foul and foul-out with less than five minutes remaining was a major killer.
But it shouldn’t be a dagger in the back of the Vols’ 2014 season, as Tennessee is playing its best basketball of the season. Entering Saturday’s semifinal, the Vols had won five straight games -- four by double figures – and had a solid RPI (No. 40) that shouldn’t change too much despite the loss.
Their strength of schedule (No. 25) is a plus, and they have big nonconference wins over fellow bubble team Xavier (neutral site) and No. 6 Virginia (87-52), a team that will play for the ACC tournament championship Sunday.
“There aren’t too many teams playing as well as us,” said Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, who scored a team-high 15 points against the Gators. “We fought Florida hard, probably gave Florida one of their closest games all year.
“We’re playing great right now.”
Being on the bubble and on the outside of tournament control has to be excruciatingly nerve-wracking for the Vols, but watching them dominate teams in March should show everyone just how tough this team is. The defense is one of the SEC’s best this year, and the Vols rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense. Stokes and Maymon are forces in the middle, and McRae can be lethal when driving and shooting.
“They have two of the best offensive rebounders in our league – two huge bodies up front,” Florida guard Michael Frazier said of Tennessee. “Definitely, they’re a tournament team. They’re a great coached team. We might see them in the tournament again -- you never know.”
Frazier's coach agrees.
“Certainly, I believe they're an NCAA tournament team," Billy Donovan said. “They are going to be, I think ... a very difficult team in the NCAA tournament, from what I've been able to see this year, playing them three times.”
As for the Gators, they again overcame a slow first half to slip by another opponent fighting for an NCAA berth. Florida got its offense going in its second-half rout of Missouri on Friday, but the Gators relied on their suffocating defense Saturday to record their 25th consecutive victory.
When Florida’s offense became careless and lackadaisical and got pushed around Saturday, the defense clamped down, limiting the Vols to one-shot possessions. The Gators' hands were more active, disrupting passes and preventing the easy buckets that fueled Tennessee in the first half.
After giving up 35 points before halftime and yielding their largest deficit in SEC play (10 points) -- the biggest since their 59-53 loss to Wisconsin back in November -- the Gators (31-2) limited the Vols to 1-of-11 shooting with five turnovers in the final seven minutes.
“We wanted them to work for whatever they were going to get,” said Frazier, who had four steals and seven points. “The best thing we did in the second half was get our hands on a lot of balls -- a lot of deflections, steals -- and we were able to turn those into points.”
“We were the more hungry team, and it showed.”
The mystery for this Florida team is why the first half has been so difficult. Saturday marked the eighth time this season that Florida trailed at halftime. Two of those games resulted in losses.
But the Gators bailed themselves out with their defense to secure a spot in their second straight SEC championship game.
“That was the only way we had to get it done,” forward Will Yeguete said. “Only way we were going to get the win was getting done by defense.”