KNOXVILLE — As Josh Richardson slowly trudged down the court, his eyes on the silenced Thompson-Boling Arena crowd streaming toward the exits and ice-cold February air, the Tennessee guard turned and exasperatedly shouted a word unfit for print.
It's tough to argue that the situation didn't deserve it.
The Volunteers and Florida had gone at each other all night in a back-and-forth game not for the faint of heart or weak of will, but the third-ranked Gators made the key gritty plays in crunch time and outscored Tennessee 12-4 in the final 4:32 of a 67-58 SEC win in a loud, hostile road environment Tuesday night.
"It was tough," Tennessee's leading scorer Jordan McRae said after scoring 17 points against the Florida defense that held him to 1-of-15 shooting in a 67-41 rout of the Vols in Gainesville 18 days ago. "We played hard out there. It was a hard-fought loss for us.
"The crowd did a great job for us, but I think in both halves, we came out flat, and against a team like Florida it'll cost you."
While Florida (22-2, 11-0) jumped to a 10-2 lead in the game's opening minutes and started the second half with a 9-2 spurt, the Gators notched their 16th straight win of the season and earned just their second win in Knoxville since 2005 with some big plays late.
Yet Tennessee (15-9, 6-5) will feel it missed some chances to hand Florida its first loss since Dec. 2.
Trailing 53-48 following another 9-2 Gator spurt midway through the second half, Jarnell Stokes missed two free throws and Richardson missed a two-handed dunk in transition following a steal.
After later missing two shots on one trip down the floor with Florida up two, the Vols pulled to within one on Jarnell Stokes' three-point play with 4:32 left. After Tennessee got a defensive stop, Jeronne Maymon turned it over in the post, and Michael Frazier II hit a 3-pointer to give Florida a 58-54 lead.
Tennessee finished with 15 turnovers, and Florida scored seven of its first 10 points off the Vols' miscues. At one point in the first half, the Vols had eight turnovers and just nine shot attempts. Maymon finished with eight turnovers, none bigger than the one when Tennessee had the chance to surge ahead.
"I didn't think about taking him out because he was playing hard," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "He was diving on the floor. He did a tremendous job of battling and competing. There were several times they had the rebound and he did a great job in getting a jump [ball]. I didn't think about taking him out.
"It was just unfortunate [because] he played extremely hard."
On the Gators' next trip, Scottie Wilbekin, who scored 21 points but shot only 5-of-17 from the field, nailed a straightaway 3 over Richardson with less than five seconds showing on the shot clock to push Florida's lead to 61-54.
"That's what he does," Martin said of Wilbekin, Florida's valuable senior point guard.
"I mean, Josh played good defense," McRae added. "That's the kind of player Wilbekin is. He's the leader for the team, and he hits big shots when they need it the most.
Leading 61-55 with less than two minutes left, Florida grabbed three of its own misses in a row, two of which were 50-50 balls that resulted in a scrum that sent bodies flying and crashing to the floor.
"I definitely wish I could take that play back," said Stokes, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
"I've got to take it up in my own hands to go and get those rebounds," he added. "I wish I could take that back."
The Vols held Florida to just 36 percent shooting, but the Gators snagged 18 offensive rebounds, doubling Tennessee's total.
It was the turnovers, though, that Martin and his players were lamenting after letting a win that could have solidified Tennessee's NCAA tournament case slip out of their grasp.
"Our turnovers were more or less unforced turnovers," McRae said, "and against the No. 3 team in the country, you can't do that."
Despite falling behind in the game's opening minutes, Tennessee battled back and took a 32-26 lead with a 10-0 run late in the first half that had the crowd of 18,009 rocking.
The Vols ultimately couldn't take advantage, though.
"It's tough, because I thought it was a tremendous environment," Martin said. "Our fans were great, but it's tough, because we felt like we were ready to win the game. We did everything to prepare to win the game, but again, you've got to take care of the basketball. Against a good team, you can't make those types of mistakes.
"It's a tough thing to deal with, but we've got to keep moving."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...