Florida coach Billy Donovan must have laid into his team at halftime. His Gators were losing to Tennessee by seven points, UF’s largest halftime deficit of the year, and his team was clearly not following the defensive gameplan he and coaching staff had put together for the semifinal contest. Over the next twenty minutes, though, UF, carefully heeding their second defensive tutorial, underwent a transformation, blowing up each of Tennessee’s offensive plays and holding the Vols to just one field goal for half of the second session. The close final score — 56-49 — isn’t indicative of how uncomfortable UF made Cuonzo Martin’s squad look.
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During the initial half, UT was driving the ball at the Gators, getting easy looks at the basket and scoring 1.08 points per possession. The SEC tournament is now defined by tweaks made by its coaches, and after UT made five layups to start the second session, Donovan unleashed a man press that trapped the sidelines, a move which immediately forced a turnover. Donovan next turned his gaze to Jarnell Stokes; the UT big had scored four field goals, physically beasting the Gator frontcourt until Donovan instructed his team to double on the touch, a move which took away the Vols interior. Clearly flustered and unable to assist from the post, Stokes didn’t make another shot from the field.
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The key, though, was Scottie Wilbekin’s defense on Jordan McRae. The wing was seven for 31 in the first two meetings, and since he takes the highest percentage of UT’s attempts, controlling McRae was crucial. He may have finished with 15 points, but Wilbekin managed to consistently have a hand impeding McRae’s vision, staying in front of the UT wing and forcing him to take off-balance shots. Even when Martin used Stokes as a distributor, letting the big flash to the elbow and hand-off to McRae, Antonio Barton, and Josh Richardson, the help supplied by the other four Gators turned each Vol away and forced them to retreat, reset, and then take a low-percentage shot.
Another impressive aspect of Donovan’s tweak was their man-to-man sagging the team displayed over the final twenty minutes. It further took away the paint, and when combined with UF’s help defense, UT’s scoring was locked down.
Recaps of this game will specifically mention the technical received by Jeronne Maymon and his subsequent ejection. Or they will focus on Florida’s overall offensive ineptitude (.91 PPP; Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith were a combined two of eight). But the real story is the changes UF made during their break and then the eventual ransacking of every single UT offensive possession.
The Gators’ second half defensive efficiency rate was .52 PPP, a whopping rate that simply underscores Florida’s dominance, which is why this team, even when they can’t find the basket, is a threat to take the national title.