Vols overcome brutal turnover stretch to extend home winning streak to 12

·4 min read

Jan. 27—There have been plenty of stretches this basketball season when Tennessee couldn't make shots.

There was a point Wednesday night when the Volunteers couldn't take any.

"We went five minutes without shooting the ball," a flabbergasted Rick Barnes said in a news conference. "To win a game after going five minutes without attempting a field goal is tough to do."

Tennessee's 78-71 topping of Florida inside Thompson-Boling Arena included 23 points from junior guard Santiago Vescovi, 17 points from freshman guard Kennedy Chandler and the overcoming of a brutal first-half stretch. Vescovi and Chandler combined to go 12-of-12 on free throws, with each making a pair in the final 32 seconds after Tyree Appleby's 3-pointer had pulled the Gators within 74-71.

The No. 18 Vols improved to 14-5 overall and 5-3 in Southeastern Conference play with their 12th consecutive home victory, a streak that began with a 65-54 defeat of Florida last March. As was the case during Tennessee's 64-50 win over visiting LSU last Saturday night, chippy play resulted in multiple technical fouls being distributed.

"There is always chirping going on in a game, and I understand being competitive and getting after it, but we're going to have a class program," Barnes said. "There are some times you've got to move on. I played the game once, so I get it, but we're going to do things in a class way."

Said Vescovi: "I feel like it's putting a target on our back but that teams will know that we'll always have this attitude, too. It gets us to a point where everybody is focused."

Tennessee outscored Florida 44-29 in the final 20 minutes, as the Gators (12-8, 3-5) followed up a 7-of-16 showing from 3-point range in the first half with a 3-of-17 collapse. Florida was coming off Monday night's 70-54 loss at Ole Miss in which the Gators were an abysmal 4-of-29 from long range.

A Kennedy Chandler layup less than three minutes into Wednesday's contest put Tennessee up 10-8, but Appleby banked in a 3 to ignite a stunning 15-0 Florida run that put the Gators up 23-10. During that stretch, Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, John Fulkerson, Zakai Zeigler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield committed turnovers for the Vols.

"Florida came out hard and punched us first," Zeigler said. "That knocked us off our feet, but we turned the ball over seven possessions in a row. That's never happened."

Barnes wondered afterward if he had ever coached a game where one of his teams went five minutes without taking a shot, but the Vols eventually countered with an 11-0 surge on the strength of two Zeigler 3-pointers, pulling within 23-21 on a Chandler jumper at the 8:46 mark. Phlandrous Fleming would connect from long range, however, to restore Florida's double-digit advantage at 34-24 with 3:57 before halftime.

The Gators grabbed a 42-34 lead at the break, shooting 51.7% from the floor and 43.8% from 3-point range while forcing 12 Tennessee turnovers and committing only three. Vescovi scored 14 first-half points and was 4-of-5 from behind the arc in the first 20 minutes, but the Vols got just two first-half points from their inside quartet of Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic, Fulkerson and Huntley-Hatfield.

"I thought we talked a lot before the game, but I don't think we came out and did anything that we talked about in terms of our game plan," Barnes said. "Give Florida credit for that. They hit a couple of bombs early that got us back on our heels."

Florida briefly regained another double-digit advantage at 46-36 within the first minute of the second half before Tennessee chipped away until snagging the lead at 56-55 on a Vescovi layup in transition and then extending it to 59-55 on a James 3 with 9:32 remaining.

The Gators and Vols will be participating Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, with Florida hosting Oklahoma State and Tennessee traveling to Texas.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.