A cheap shot by Florida seemed to ignite Tennessee and take away any shot the Gators had of beating the Vols in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals Friday in Nashville.
Omar Payne elbowed John Fulkerson not once but twice, the second leveling the Vols’ senior, leading to a stare down from Yves Pons and a Flagrant 2 foul ejection for Payne.
Tennessee (18-7) led Florida 35-26 when Payne inflicted pain on Fulkerson with 17:10 left in the game. The Vols made two free throws and a jumper to stretch the lead to 39-26. The lead got to 46-29 and the Vols were able to hold off Tre Mann’s 28 second-half points to down Florida (14-9) for the second time in six days.
Tennessee advances to the semifinals where it will face Alabama, a 85-48 winner over Mississippi State, Saturday at 1 p.m.
Each time Florida made a run, the Vols responded with a 3-pointer or drive to the basket or blocked shot.
It wasn’t perfect. UT missed four free straight throws during one stretch, fouled a 3-pointer shooter on a made attempt, had some senseless turnovers, did a poor job guarding Mann and had a shot clock violation.
But Pons, the senior from France, simply would not let his team lose. He was brilliant on defense before Fulkerson went down, but his intensity rose after the vicious foul against his teammate.
Pons blocked an SEC Tournament-tying nine shots, setting a Tennessee record along the way. He had 11 points, eight rebounds and hit two timely 3s.
Tennessee’s well-rounded attack featured 14 points from Santiago Vescovi (he was 4 of 9 on 3s). Keon Johnson had 13 points and 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Josiah James had 10 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Jaden Springer chipped in with 13 points.
Tennessee outrebounded Florida 39-33, even though the Gators started a taller lineup trying to offset the 18 offensive rebounds UT had in Sunday’s 11-point victory.
A key stat for Tennessee: 21 assists to 13 turnovers while Florida had 7 assists and 16 turnovers.
UT has been hard to beat this season when it has a plus margin in assists-to-turnovers.
For a change, UT played well in back-to-back games. During a recent stretch UT was 6-6 over 12 games but has won the last two in a row.
UT was hot from the start against the Gators, charging to a 16-8 lead, then 23-10. Pons had six blocks in the first 14 minutes of the first half.
The Vols also did a great defensive job on Mann, holding him to two points in the first half as Mann started the game 0-for-6 from the field.
The Vols were up nine when Fulkerson was floored, which seem to drive up the intensity for both teams and led to some chippy moments.
Alabama defeated Tennessee in Knoxville 71-63 on Jan. 2, sending notice the Crimson Tide would be tough to take down.
The Vols likely will be without Fulkerson. While coach Rick Barnes said Fulkerson is fine, he also said “he probably won’t be available’’ against the Tide.