ATLANTA -- Florida coach Billy Donovan has inspired his top-ranked basketball team with powerful halftime speeches this season, but it was a challenging statement from assistant coach Matt McCall that galvanized the Gators for another second-half rally, dispatching Tennessee 56-49 in an intense Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal.
UF (31-2) trailed by seven points at halftime, but a dominant defensive effort and a recharged Patric Young sparked an impressive comeback that gave the Gators the last word.
“One of the coaches told us that as he was walking back to the locker room, [Tennessee] was yelling in their locker room, ‘They don’t want it! They don’t want it!’ ” Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said.
“He told us that, so we kind of took that personally. It kind of got us fired up. We were like, ‘We can’t have somebody playing harder than us and wanting the game more than we do.’ ”
Florida, decimated by foul trouble in the first half, didn’t panic — as it never does — and patience and intensity sparked its latest second-half comeback.
In the second half, the Gators forced 11 turnovers and held the Volunteers to 14 points, including just one field goal in the game’s final 12 minutes. The Volunteers (21-12) were 5 of 20 from the field after shooting 54 percent (14 of 26) in the first half.
“We did a really, really good job defensively [Saturday],” Donovan said. “We held them to 14 points [after halftime]. We really didn’t let them get going from behind the three-point line. It really came down to a lot of loose-ball play. We got some steals in the press to get back in the game.”
The Gators became the first team in SEC history to win 20 conference games, and will face Kentucky (3:15 p.m. Sunday, ABC) for the SEC tournament title in their third trip to the final in the past four years.
Young led all scorers with 16 points, 10 coming after halftime. The senior center scored the go-ahead basket on a baby hook with 2 minutes 24 seconds remaining and later squeezed the game-clinching rebound, allowing Florida to milk away the final 40 seconds.
But Florida had to earn its school-record 25th consecutive victory.
The Volunteers, a talented but flawed team, traded blows with the nation’s top-ranked team. Tennessee’s Twin Tanks — Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes — combined for 16 points and eight rebounds before halftime. Tennessee outscored UF 20-10 in the paint, but the reigning SEC Player of the Year singlehandily kept Florida in the game.
Scottie Wilbekin finished with 14 points, with 13 coming in the first half highlighted by his buzzer-beating three-pointer.
Ignited by Wilbekin’s momentous shot, Florida never blinked, calmly flipping a switch and replaying the same old script.
The Gators, who outscored the Volunteers 103-60 in three second halves this season, opened the half on a 10-2 sprint behind a tenacious trapping defense, unselfish basketball and swelling momentum.
“It helps that we’ve been in every type of situation this year,” Wilbekin said. “I was just telling the guys at halftime that we’ve been in this situation before. We know what it takes to win in the second half. As long as we come out and play like we know we can, we’ll be fine.”
Saturday’s game had the look of a physical, heavyweight bout. With the score tied at 45, Maymon (10 points, nine rebounds) was knocked out of the game with more than four minutes remaining after receiving a technical foul — his fifth foul — following a questionable call. The Gators, 1 of 7 at the foul line to start the game, made their next six free throws in a row to take a four-point lead.
“I don't want to complain,” said Stokes, who finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four turnovers. “Florida made some big plays. They have a great team and they’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. There was some calls I didn’t like, but that’s part of it.”