ATLANTA — With its offense sputtering and its defense getting manhandled in the first half, No. 1 Florida fell back on what has been its greatest asset this season: defense.
Trailing by as many as 10 against Tennessee, Florida held the Vols to 14 second-half points and rallied for a 56-49 victory in Saturday's SEC tournament semifinals at the Georgia Dome. Top-seeded Florida plays second-seeded Kentucky today for the championship.
The Gators scored their fewest points this season and trailed by double digits in an SEC game for the first time. UF held Tennessee to 5-of-20 shooting from the field in the second half.
"We were just on edge, we just really wanted to win, we wanted to get it done," said senior forward Will Yeguete, who played the final 7:39 with four fouls. "Our shots were not falling, so we had to guard. That's the way we had to get it done."
It was the 25th consecutive win for the Gators (31-2) and their third this season over the Vols (21-12).
But it didn't come easily. The Gators trailed by seven at halftime and never held a double-digit lead in the game.
"It really just came down to a lot of loose-ball play," coach Billy Donovan said. "We got some steals in the press, got back in the game, got off to a good start in the second half. Then it obviously came down to the final minute there and we were able to hang on and win the game."
With Florida ahead 51-49, Tennessee guard Antonio Barton was called for a flagrant foul with 1:21 left, and Casey Prather hit two free throws to give the Gators a 53-49 lead. Barton later fouled Scottie Wilbekin, who hit 1 of 2 free throws with 14.9 seconds remaining.
Patric Young sealed the win with two free throws in the final two seconds. The Gators were just 10-of-17 from the line.
"In the first half, they wanted it more than we did, and it showed," sophomore guard and Tampa native Michael Frazier said. "They were getting every loose ball, they were playing harder than us and it showed that they wanted the game more than us. But in the second half we did a better job of coming out with more energy and passion."
The Vols hit just one field goal in the final 12:16.
"We were really locked in on the defensive side" in the second half, said Young, who had a team-high 16 points and eight rebounds.
Tennessee came with a game plan that included dominating the inside; it scored 20 of its 35 first-half points inside the paint. The Vols tied it at 49 on a 3-pointer by Jordan McRae with 2:46 left in the game but never led again.
"I really wanted this win," Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said. "I felt we were right there, just didn't make plays down the stretch like we usually do."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]