GAINESVILLE — When the victory celebration at midcourt began for the Florida Gators, senior forward Alex Tyus quickly made his way over to teammate Erving Walker with some words of gratitude.
"Thank you for saving my (butt)," Tyus told him.
It was Walker's driving layup with 14.7 seconds remaining then his defensive effort on Tennessee senior guard Melvin Goins on the final shot that helped the No. 17 Gators to a 61-60 victory over archrival Tennessee in front of 12,630 at the O'Connell Center on Saturday night.
The Gators (20-5, 9-2) now have a 3½-game lead on Kentucky and Tennessee and 2½ on Georgia in the SEC East race. With the victory, coach Billy Donovan has led Florida to 13 consecutive 20-win seasons.
"We're all stepping up to the plate right now and working real hard, and it's coming out great for us," senior center Vernon Macklin said. "I think every win in the SEC is a good win, but the way we grinded it out, I can say it was a great win for us, especially being at home."
Trailing 60-59 with 30.7 seconds remaining, Tyus missed two free throws. Florida immediately fouled Vols junior guard Cameron Tatum, who missed the 1-and-1. Tyus grabbed the rebound and passed to Walker, who drove the lane and scored on a layup. On the ensuing possession, Goins' final shot hit the front of the rim, and the Gators survived.
"I'm not going to lie, Goins' last shot looked on line when it came off (his hands)," Walker said.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who took the loss hard, said the Vols (15-10, 5-5) steered away from what he had designed for the final play.
"If we ran the play we called, I'm confident we would have scored," he said.
For much of the game, the Gators had no answer for junior guard Scotty Hopson. But with UF freshman Scottie Wilbekin defending, Hopson was neutralized.
"He did the best job of anybody on Hopson," Donovan said.
Hopson scored just one point in the final 10:41, hitting 1 of 2 free throws after junior guard Kenny Boynton was called for a technical foul when he threw the ball at Hopson after a foul was called.
"He fouled me," Boynton said. "I threw the ball down. It hit him."
Florida earned the win despite an injury to senior forward Chandler Parsons, who suffered a deep thigh bruise early in the game when he collided with Tyus. Parsons played 37 minutes but limped throughout the game. His only basket was a 3-pointer that was part of a 7-0 run for the Gators that culminated in a 48-47 lead with 8:28 remaining — their first lead since 11:35 remained in the first half.
"We certainly were fortunate to win," Donovan said. "I was a little bit disappointed in our team to be honest with you. … I saw some of it coming during the South Carolina game (Wednesday), and I thought winning by 19 points was a little bit misleading. … I am very, very happy we won, and I think our guys are very resilient and they have toughness, they battle, they fight and they compete."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]