(Updated: 4:30 p.m.)
Here’s your first NCAA bracket tip: Assume nothing with Florida.
The No. 1 ranked Gators took a 24-game winning streak into their SEC semifinal game against Tennessee Saturday and for most of the game looked rather pedestrian. They pulled it out in the end, winning 56-49 at the Georgia Dome, but not before leaving some doubt about how far they’ll go in the NCAA tournament – and for that matter how they’ll fare in Sunday’s SEC title game against the winner of Georgia-Kentucky.
Somebody asked Florida coach Billy Donovan if he would’ve considered a loss such a bad thing before the NCAA tournament.
His response: “That really never crossed my mind. When you’re in there competing, you’re trying to win. I do think that the these different experiences are good. I thought our struggle was we did not get great productivity off of our bench and we had to sub. When we sub, that’s when I thought Tennessee went on a run. I’m happy for our guys. But I thought the game really could have gone either way.”
Florida (31-2) trailed by much as 10 points in the first half and by seven at halftime. But strong second-half defense and a bit of an unraveling by Tennessee made the difference. It was tied at 45-45 with 4:57 left when Jeronne Maymon fouled out of the game and compounded the issue by arguing with the official, drawing a technical foul. The Gators hit four straight free throws and never trailed again. Tennessee also turned the ball over two straight times down the court.
Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin disputed the technical call on Maymon, saying he looked at the replay and, “There wasn’t anything derogatory that was said.”
Despite the loss, Tennessee, thought to be on (or close to) the bubble of making the NCAA field, made a strong case for inclusion with this game. The Volunteers defended well and might would have won had they shot better in the second half (5-for-20) and not committed 16 turnovers.
Florida, meanwhile, will take a 25-game winning streak into Sunday’s SEC final. The Gators’ last loss: Dec. 2 at Connecticut (65-64). Their early NCAA tournament run may not be as easy as some expected.