ATLANTA — Coaches will often tell you it's not easy to beat a team twice in one season. Three times? Obviously even harder.
So when the SEC tournament bracket played out that Tennessee would face Florida for the third time this season, it seemed odds were in the Vols' favor. But after taking a double-digit lead early, then falling apart midway through the first half, Florida scored 56 second-half points and shot 82 percent from the field to earn an 85-74 win Friday night in the quarterfinals.
It is the first time in Florida history that the Gators have defeated the Vols three times in one season.
"That's huge for us to come in here and do that, and it's very special," UF senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "The rivalry of Florida-Tennessee is big, and it's been big since I've been a freshman here. And it's tough because they are a great team. So I think it's really special that we did that."
The Gators (25-6), who received their SEC regular-season championship trophy in a short pregame ceremony, face Vanderbilt at 3:30 p.m. today. The Commodores defeated Mississippi State 87-81. It will be Florida's first appearance in the SEC semifinals since winning the tournament in 2007.
Florida led by 12 in the first half, taking a 25-13 lead with 9:55 remaining. But Tennessee (19-14) got tougher on defense and Florida struggled.
Led by forward Tobias Harris and junior guard Scotty Hopson, Tennessee outscored Florida 21-4 in the final 9:22 of the first half to take a 34-29 halftime lead. Harris scored six of Tennessee's first eight on his way to an 18-point first-half effort — 8-of-10 from the field. He had a game-high 25 points.
Florida scored just one basket in the final 6:18 of the half. Junior guard Erving Walker said the team was embarrassed by the performance.
"Coach (Billy Donovan) yelled at us at halftime and put us in our place," Walker said. "We didn't want to continue to look like that; we started playing like Florida in the second half."
With the score tied at 50 with 12:09 remaining, Florida went on a 7-0 run to take a 57-50 lead and never trailed again.
Tennessee's foul trouble put Florida in the bonus at the 12:35 mark, and the Gators went 24-of-33 from the free-throw line in the second half.
All five Florida starters scored in double figures, and the Gators shot 82.4 percent from the field in the second half, 58.7 percent in the game, for their second best percentage of the season. Florida was 14-of-17 in the second half.
"Florida in the second half, their offense was absolutely on fire and our defense was nonexistent," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. " … And when you allow a team to score 56 points in the second half or shoot the way they shot and send them to the foul line as often as we sent them, you got no chance to win."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.