Photo via Tennessee Athletics
There was plenty not to like about Tennessee’s offensive performance Wednesday night at Florida. While those offensive consistency issues have been fewer and far between this season, we’ve seen them enough to know they’re bubbling under the surface.
What we haven’t seen is how Tennessee crumbled down the stretch. Even in its poor performance against Kentucky, the Vols rallied late and had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead in the final minute. That was not the case in Gainesville.
“We just kept fighting uphill all night long,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “Then I thought we really lost our poise. We let the fact that we weren’t making shots (affect us), and we had some good looks at it that we didn’t knock down.”
Tennessee dug itself a 13-point hole in the game’s opening minutes before using its elite defense to claw back in the game. Zakai Zeigler drilled a three-pointer that finally got the Vols over the hump and gave them their first lead since 4-2.
More From RTI: Everything Rick Barnes Said After Disappointing Loss At Florida
Zeigler’s triple even sparked an 8-0 Tennessee run that gave the Big Orange a six-point lead with 10:40 to play. The story was writing itself.
Tennessee played poorly but made enough plays to take control of the game before coasting to the finish line for a strong road win over a Florida team fighting for a NCAA Tournament bid. That’s what great college basketball teams do— go on the road and beat solid, desperate teams without playing its best.
Only that didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite unfolded.
Tennessee crumbled on both ends of the court as Florida outscored the Vols 29-10 in the game’s final 10:07.
“Our guys are disappointed. But we’re better than this. Tonight we weren’t,” Barnes said. “I know these guys want to win, they want to do the right thing.”
The Vols (18-4, 7-2 SEC) are better than that, and in the flow of a college basketball season only a select few elite teams avoid duds like Tennessee had at Florida. This season, there is maybe one elite team (Purdue) that has avoided such a performance.
Tennessee shouldn’t get killed for a poor road performance, but the way it unfolded paired with all of the Vols’ experience, and any disappointed viewers are fully justified.
“I feel like we might have got a little rushed and we might have felt the pressure a little bit,” senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “But I think a lot of it came from just playing defense kind of shaky, letting them target certain things that we’ve been struggling with lately and letting them use scouting (report) things to figure out what we’re trying to get into and then figure out where we often fall asleep or where we make our mistakes, and just attacking.”
As bad as Tennessee’s offense was down the stretch — and it was very bad, making only three field goals after taking a six-point led — its defensive performance was more surprising. Florida torched the Vols for 29 points in the final 10:07, scoring at an unseen pace against Tennessee’s dominant defense.
That defense is supposed to win Tennessee games when its offense struggles. Not only did it fail to deliver a victory in Gainesville, it failed to keep the game competitive in the final minutes.
“Still, defensively, I just thought we at the wrong time gave up some baskets that we can’t give up,” Barnes said.
“On defense, we were a step slow and made mistakes we don’t need to be making and don’t usually make and we won’t be making again,” Nkamhoua said.
Tennessee knows it has to be better on the defensive end, but it knew it had to be better entering the game. Actions speak louder than words and this veteran team shouldn’t lose its poise in a position its been in before.
An early February loss is far from reason to panic but how the Vols respond the next time they’re in that position will be critical and telling.