NASHVILLE, Tn— Under a week after defeating Florida in its regular season finale, Tennessee faced the Gators again, leading for 39:12 in the 78-66 win.
Tennessee's defense dominated Florida for the first 20 minutes, holding the Gators to 22 points on 30% shooting from the field while turning it over nine times. Marking back to the second half of last week’s game, the Vols had allowed Florida to score just 43 points in the last 40 minutes of action.
Yves Pons was the driving force for the Vols’ dominant defense, blocking four shots in the first nine minutes of the game and tying his own Tennessee record for blocks in a game, six, in the first half. Pons would add three blocks in the second half to end the game, tying the SEC Tournament single game record with nine blocks.
“I thought he was terrific,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of Pons. “He was terrific. His blocks were great. We told our guys at halftime ‘hey, Yves is going to come get them, you guys just have to clean it up for him, and for the most part in the second half— that happened for the most part.”
Pons nearly became the second ever Tennessee player to record a triple-double, recording 11 points and eight rebounds to go with his nine blocks.
Tennessee’s offense scuffled entering the half, scoring just two points in the final 6:10, allowing Florida to cut its deficit to nine entering the break.
The struggles continued to open the second half with the Vols turning it over twice and having an out of control shot on their first three possessions of the second half.
Keon Johnson’s floater with 17:12 left in the game was just the Vols’ fourth point of the second half. However, right after the made floater Florida’s Omar Payne hit John Fulkerson with a pair of wicked elbows that led to a flagrant foul, Payne’s ejection from the game and Fulkerson not being able to return.
It also kick started Tennessee’s offense as the Vols went on a 13-3 run that extended their lead to a game high 17 points.
“It kind of pissed us off,” Pons said.
“They were upset,” Barnes said. “They were very upset. What we tried to talk about was the emotion of it."
Barnes didn’t officially rule out Fulkerson for tomorrow’s semi final matchup with Alabama but did say he’d be “surprised” if the Vols’ big man could go tomorrow.
Tennessee’s defense wasn’t as strong in the second half, allowing 44 points. However, the Vols’ defense was better than the numbers showed. After shooting one-for-eight in the first half, Florida guard Tre Mann was fantastic in the second half, scoring 28 points on seven-of-11 scoring.
After Payne’s elbow on Fulkerson, the officials started calling the game tighter, leading to 35 free throws attempted in the second half compared to just one in the first.
“A really good effort,” Barnes said of the Vols’ defense. “A big emphasis on our ball screen defense, getting up to touch. We didn't want to get drug out, strung out where we weren't up there, giving their guards a chance to either split it, drag us down to the baseline. We really wanted to have a confrontation right there at the impact of the ball. For the most part we did. I thought we stayed in our coverage, were disciplined that way when we couldn't get our primary defense, what we wanted. We were switching out. I thought our guards did a really good job when they got a guy on post down low, sit on the post man's hip, get in front.”
On the offensive end, Tennessee was incredibly balanced with five scorers reaching double figures and Fulkerson not too far behind with eight points in 19 minutes of play.
Santiago Vescovi led Tennessee in scoring with 14 points on four-of-nine shooting from three-point range.
“I got more confident as the game went,” Vescovi said. “First of all, I think the perception of the rim and the stands behind was kind of playing some games in my mind. I couldn't get the real distance from me to the rim. But then I settled down a little bit, I started feeling more good, I started feeling better.”
Freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer tallied 13 and 11 points respectively. Springer struggled in the first half before scoring all 11 of his points in the second.
Behind Pons, no one for Tennessee was better than Johnson. The Shelbyville, Tennessee native shot six-of-11 from the field while adding nine rebounds and six assists to three turnovers.
Josiah Jordan James added 11 points on four-of-five shooting from the field while tallying nine rebounds and five assists.
Tennessee will return to action tomorrow when they face the SEC regular season champion Alabama at 1 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.