KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — No. 3 Florida passed the first of two straight tough SEC road tests Tuesday night, beating Tennessee 67-58 behind Scottie Wilbekin's 21 points and six assists.
Next, the Gators (22-2, 11-0 SEC) face their biggest challenge yet: a prime-time matchup against Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday, with a chance to put significant distance between themselves and the rest of the conference. The No. 14 Wildcats (18-5, and second in the SEC at 8-2) visit Auburn tonight.
Florida won its 16th straight game Tuesday, stepping up its second-half defense to pull away in an arena where the Gators had lost eight of their past 10.
"I think it has a little bit to do with experience," Wilbekin said. "Four seniors (in the starting lineup). It's been a while since we've had four seniors on the team."
Florida won thanks to a smothering defense that returned to form just in time.
After falling behind in the first half because of Tennessee's strong shooting, the Gators stepped up their defense down the stretch.
Florida had allowed opponents to shoot just 38.4 percent in its first 22 games before Saturday, when Alabama shot 55 percent in a 78-69 loss to the Gators. Tennessee shot 62.5 percent in the first half Tuesday but just 29.2 percent (7-of-24) after halftime.
"We didn't press a lot in the first half," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "… We wanted the game going up and down the floor, to really get into a racing game, and I thought we pressed predominantly most of the second half."
Tampa's Michael Frazier II added 11 points for Florida. Wilbekin and Frazier both made key 3-pointers down the stretch.
Jarnell Stokes had 20 points and 11 rebounds for Tennessee (15-9, 6-5). Jordan McRae had 17 points and Josh Richardson 13.
When the teams last met, Florida routed UT 67-41 on Jan. 25 in Gainesville, the most lopsided loss in Cuonzo Martin's three-year Vols coaching tenure.
"We knew we were a better team than that first game anyway, (even) while it was going on," Richardson said. "We came out and played as well as we could (Tuesday), and they just outplayed us."
The Gators led 10-2 early but the Vols found their offensive rhythm.
"I was really encouraged coming into the half, just for the fact we'd shot 36 percent from the field and they shot 62 and we're down by one," Donovan said. "That's generally a recipe where you're down by 12 to 15."