GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - In coach Billy Donovan's mind, his Florida team was still very much in a growing stage entering its matchup with Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee on Saturday.
And as pleased as he was with the 17th-ranked Gators' 61-60 comeback win, he still doesn't think he's seen the best out of his young team. But it might be figuring things out.
Junior guard Erving Walker hit a driving, go-ahead layup with 14 seconds left and the Gators overcame a six-point halftime deficit to maintain control of the SEC East. Florida began the day with a 2 1/2-game lead over four teams tied for second place.
``There's no one on our team that's ever been in a situation like this, where you're playing for first place, you're playing for a league championship, you're in the middle of it right now,' Donovan said. ``They're starting to understand what this is all about.'
Walker led the Gators with 16 points and Kenny Boynton and Vernon Macklin each added 12. Alex Tyus chipped in 10 for Florida (20-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference), which has won four straight and seven of eight.
``It was an on-ball screening action in the middle of the court and all our players was up so there was nobody at the basket,' Walker said. ``They tried to (drop) down and I was able to get down the lane and make a layup.'
Melvin Goins was able to get off a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer for Tennessee, but it clanged off the back of the rim.
Tennessee got 22 points from Scotty Hopson and 11 from Brian Williams. The Volunteers (15-10, 5-5) lost their third consecutive game and second in a row since coach Bruce Pearl returned from an eight-game SEC suspension for lying to NCAA investigators about a secondary violation.
``This was one of the more disappointing losses of my career,' Pearl said. ``We had a game plan that we felt could be effective. We caught Florida in a stretch where they played a lot of good teams and had some big wins.'
After the Vols played well in the first half, Pearl said his team's execution on its final possession left a lot to be desired.
``I'm disappointed in the execution at the end,' he said. ``We didn't run the (play) that was called. ... I considered calling a timeout late in the possession because it was obviously not what I wanted, but I went ahead and let it go.'
As well as Walker played, the Gators rallied in the second half without the usual all-around game from top rebounder and senior leader Chandler Parsons. He came in averaging 11 points and 7.9 rebounds, but had just three points and three boards in 27 minutes as he battled a deep thigh bruise. Donovan said he is questionable for the Gators' next game at LSU on Feb. 20.
Macklin said that winning without Parsons at 100 percent showed a lot about the Gators' growing resiliency. Along with injuries, Florida also overcame 17 turnovers, including 10 in the first half. Those high numbers have usually meant doom for the Gators this season.
``We've come from a long ways,' Macklin said. ``We're learning. It's a learning process for us. Coach D and the rest of the coaching staff is helping us out so we're learning and getting better and growing right now.'
Macklin went to the bench after picking up his third foul with 18:22 to play and Florida trailing 37-31. The Gators hung tough without his inside presence, though, trimming Tennessee's advantage to 40-38 on a 3-pointer by Erik Murphy at the 12:19 mark.
The Volunteers' lead was 43-38 when Macklin returned with 10:53 left and his dunk off a steal with 8:26 to play gave Florida a 48-47 edge.
Goins hit a jumper to tie it at 49 and Josh Bone's 3 put the Volunteers back in front 52-49 with 6:25 left. Macklin's hook in the lane tied it again at 53-all and a steal and dunk by Tyus put the Gators back up 55-53 with 3:49 remaining.
The Gators were leading 57-55 when Macklin was whistled for a blocking foul on Cameron Tatum's layup attempt. Tatum hit one of two free throws with 2:29 left to cut the lead to a point.
Walker hit a pair at the line to make it 59-56 and Williams cut it to one again with a running hook. The Gators turned it over with 1:25 left and Tatum got a putback underneath to put Tennessee back up 60-59 with 46.8 seconds remaining.
Tyus was fouled by Williams going up for a dunk with 30.7 seconds left but missed the free throws. Tatum returned the favor, though, missing the front end of a one-and-one to set up the Gators' final possession and Walker's game-winner.
``We did a lot of great things to try to get this win, but we just let it go,' Hopson said. ``We stayed poised through most of the game and we definitely made some good plays through the first half. But late down the stretch we have to look at what we did wrong and use that to help us win our next game.'
The Associated Press News Service
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